“The Night Cafe,” the painting Yale University Art Gallery Chief Curator Laurence Kanter called one of Vincent Van Gogh’s most “personal and profound achievements,” is yet again the subject of an international legal dispute.
On Monday, French citizen Pierre Konowaloff filed a brief with the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, appealing a March 2014 summary judgment by U.S. District Court Judge for Connecticut Alvin Thompson. That judgment dismissed claims by Konowaloff that he is the rightful owner of “The Night Cafe” and that Yale should return the painting and pay damages of $75,000.
Konowaloff’s claim to the painting stretches back nearly a century. He is the great-grandson of Russian industrialist Ivan Morozov, from whom the painting was seized by the Bolsheviks during the 1918 Russian Revolution. It was then transported to the United States in 1933, when Stephen Clark 1903 acquired the painting. He later bequeathed “The Night Cafe” to Yale.
Although Thompson’s decision was based on the act of state doctrine — which holds that American courts should not hear cases involving political or governmental issues in another country — Konowaloff’s brief notes that he is restricting his argument to the 1933 sale of the painting, which he says was illegal.
“We’re not saying that Yale is an embezzler, but that it stands in the shoes of an embezzler,” said Allan Gerson LAW ’76, chairman of the firm AG International Law, which is defending Konowaloff. “For purposes of titlement, your title to is it is only as good as the person who gave it to you.”
University Spokesperson Tom Conroy said Yale has been the rightful owner of “The Night Cafe” for more than 50 years and that Konowaloff’s appeal is frivolous. YUAG Communications Director Joellen Adae provided no further comment.
According to the brief, Clark “managed to acquire the painting by a surreptitious scheme to make it appear as if the transaction had been solely between him and the Knoedler Gallery in New York.”
But, the brief continues, Clark in fact colluded to “pay off corrupt Soviet officials to engineer the ‘sale.’”
Gerson added that he and his client had recently obtained documents from Russia which support their position, revealing that there had been no approval of the painting’s sale to the Knoedler Gallery nor to Clark. Unlike most documented sales of paintings in Russia in the early 1900s, the sale of “The Night Cafe” does not contain multiple signatures. In light of these documents, Gerson said his client is entitled to a trial which “deals with the question of title laws.”
Yale first sued Konowaloff in 2009, asserting rightful ownership. In his response later that year, Konowaloff claimed that the Russian government had seized the painting in violation of international law and that Russia’s subsequent failure to pay Morozov upon his death in 1921 made Konowaloff the painting’s rightful owner.
But Yale Law School professor James Whitman suggested that Konowaloff’s renewed effort to obtain the painting may be in vain.
“As far as I know he lost in federal court in Connecticut on the standard reasoning, which is that the Act of State doctrine prevents the court from inquiring into questions of title based on international law. If there’s some reason to think he would have better luck in a [New York] state court I simply don’t know what that reason would be,” Whitman said in an email.
“The Night Cafe” was painted in 1888 in Arles, France.