If a federal court rules that Yale has no ownership claim to the Vincent Van Gogh painting “The Night Café,” billions of dollars worth of other artwork could be put into legal jeopardy, the University claimed in court papers filed Dec. 23.
The University sued in federal court last March to establish its ownership rights to the painting after the relative of a previous owner made similar claims. Both parties agree that in 1908 the Russian aristocrat Ivan Morozov purchased the painting. But in 1918 the communist Soviet government nationalized most Russian property, including the painting. The painting was donated to Yale by 1903 alumnus Stephen Clark and hung in the University Art Gallery, where it has remained for nearly 50 years.
Morovoz’s great-grandson, Pierre Konowaloff, claims that the nationalization of the painting was illegal under international law and, thus, neither Russia nor Yale has the right to own the piece. Yale responded that the federal court has no right to invalidate acts by the Russian government and that, were the court to do so, at least $20 billion dollars of artwork and property similarly nationalized by Russia would be up for grabs.
Correction: Jan. 11, 2010
An earlier version of this brief misreported the way in which the University acquired the Van Gogh painting. It was donated by 1903 alumnus Stephen Clark, not purchased from the Soviet Union.