A Vincent Van Gogh masterpiece whose rightful ownership has generated international controversy will remain on the walls of the Yale University Art Gallery for the foreseeable future.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge for Connecticut Alvin Thompson dismissed a claim by French citizen Pierre Konowaloff that he is the rightful owner of “The Night Café” — valued at $200 million — and that Yale should return the painting and pay damages of $75,000. Konowaloff is the great-grandson of a Russian aristocrat who owned the painting before it was confiscated by Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution in 1918.
The painting arrived in 1961 at the YUAG, where it is currently on display in the European art wing. It depicts the interior of a nearly empty cafe at night.
“We are, of course, very pleased with Judge Thompson’s decision,” said University Vice President and General Counsel Dorothy Robinson. “This great work has been cared for over a half century by the Yale Art Gallery where it is on display to the public, and we look forward to having it available here for generations to come.”
In 2009, Yale sued Konowaloff in U.S. District Court, asserting ownership of the painting. Konowaloff filed a response and counterclaim later that year. Konowaloff claimed that Russia’s seizure of the painting violated international law and that Russia’s failure to pay his great-grandfather, Russian industrialist Ivan Morozov, upon his death in 1921 meant the painting rightfully belonged to him.
Konowaloff’s attorney, Allan Gerson, said in court documents that Yale’s arguments constituted asking courts to “rubber-stamp good title on any dictator’s plunder.” Gerson said Friday that he is considering appealing Thompson’s ruling.
In its 2010 motion requesting a summary judgment in the case, the University leveled three primary arguments against Konowaloff’s claims: that they were beyond the statute of limitations, that the act of state doctrine prevented Konowaloff from “mounting a legal challenge to the validity of Russia’s decree in a U.S. court” and that a foreign nation’s seizure “of its own national’s property within its own borders does not violate international law.”
“At bottom, Konowaloff offers only historical arguments, not cognizable legal claims,” the motion read.
Yale argued that a court decision in Konowaloff’s favor could have invalidated galleries’ ownership of tens of billions of dollars of artwork.
“The Night Cafe” is not the only high-profile work of art that Konowaloff has sought. He was involved in a previous court case against The Metropolitan Museum of Art, claiming possession of the Paul Cezanne painting “Lady in the Conservatory,” which was also owned by Morozov. In 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit decided the case against Konowaloff.
Robinson said the Cezanne case set a strong precedent for the University’s argument that Konowaloff’s claims should be dismissed.
YUAG Director Jock Reynolds declined to comment on the decision when reached Monday.
Laurence Kanter, the YUAG’s Lionel Goldfrank III curator of European art, said earlier this month that “The Night Cafe” is the greatest 19th-century European painting at the YUAG. It is considered one of Van Gogh’s “most moving inventions,” he added.
The YUAG received the painting in 1961 through a bequest by Stephen Carlton Clark 1903, who bought it from a gallery in New York in the 1930s.