The dispute over the ownership of Vincent van Gogh’s “The Night Café” is receiving renewed attention as the heir of the painting’s original owner has moved to bring Russia into the legal proceedings.
The University filed a lawsuit asserting its ownership over the piece in March 2009. Later that year, Pierre Konowaloff — the great-grandson of the Russian aristocrat who owned “The Night Café” before it was confiscated by the Bolsheviks in 1918 — filed a response and counterclaim asking for both the painting and over $75,000 in damages. The post-impressionist masterpiece, currently valued at approximately $200 million, has been a part of the Yale University Art Gallery’s collection since 1961 and is currently on view in its European Art wing. This February, Konowaloff filed to initiate a settlement conference with Yale that would include representatives from the Russian Federation, claiming that the 2009 proceedings lacked the perspective of a party he thought should be involved in the dispute’s resolution.
“The Russian government cannot be compelled to testify, to appear, or to answer questions before the court,” said the press release from AG International Law, PLLC, the firm representing Konowaloff. “Whether it chooses to appear, if invited, is purely voluntary based on its right to challenge Yale’s claim. Russia’s appearance would thus raise no foreign policy or international legal concerns that may have been raised in other recent cases involving Russian art or other cultural property.”
Konowaloff is the descendant of Ivan Morozov, much of whose art collection was seized in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. In the 1930s, the U.S.S.R. began to sell various pieces of art in its possession, two of which were prominent works from Morozov’s seized collection — Van Gogh’s “The Night Café” and Paul Cézanne’s “Lady in the Conservatory.” Via a Berlin intermediary, both paintings made their way to New York’s Knoedler Gallery, from where they were purchased by Stephen Clark. After Clark’s death in 1960, “The Night Café” was bequeathed to Yale University and “Lady in the Conservatory” to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Yale’s Vice President and General Counsel Dorothy Robinson said there are currently no settlement discussions underway.
“We believe this case is controlled entirely by the precedent of Konowaloff vs. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, decided in 2012 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and that Yale’s motion for summary judgment will succeed,” Robinson said.
In Konowaloff vs. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Konowaloff filed a lawsuit against the Met for ownership of “Lady in the Conservatory.” The museum argued for a dismissal of his claims based chiefly on the act of state doctrine, which states that the court of one country cannot adjudicate on acts committed by another sovereign state within that state’s territory.
In December 2012, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York affirmed the district court’s 2011 decision. Given that the seizure of Morozov’s pieces gave ownership of the pieces to the U.S.S.R government and the U.S. recognized that government’s sovereignty, the Court of Appeals agreed that Konowaloff did not have legal standing to complain about the country’s sale of the Cézanne.
Robinson stressed that she thinks the 2012 decision pertains to the current case as well.
“The law is clear,” she said in an email. “Konowaloff’s claims were thrown out in that case under the rule that U.S. courts won’t question property nationalized by the Russian government after the Russian Revolution. That property included the Cézanne painting in the Met case, and it includes the van Gogh painting in this case. So Konowaloff’s claims will be thrown out here, too.”
Laurence Kanter, the YUAG’s Lionel Goldfrank III curator of European art, emphasized the importance of“The Night Café” to the gallery’s collection.
“We have a relatively small collection of nineteenth-century European art at YUAG, among which is an unusual number of great paintings,” Kanter said. “Easily the greatest of these is “The Night Café” … this painting is widely considered one of his most moving inventions.”
Visitors to the gallery echoed Kanter’s statement, emphasizing the painting’s historical significance and its strong visual appeal.
Eva Dunfky, a Barnard College student who visited the gallery and saw “The Night Café” last Saturday, compared her experience viewing the painting with the one she had seeing “The Starry Night” at Amsterdam’s van Gogh Museum.
“With this painting, I feel like you can really begin to see some of the lines of artistic influence that arise at the end of the 19th, beginning of the 20th, centuries,” she said.
Julia Butts ’17, another YUAG visitor, explained that she was particularly fond of van Gogh’s use of color and light, and described the painting as “incredible, beautiful and striking.”
The Yale University Art Gallery is located at 1111 Chapel St.