A six-year legal battle over Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Night Café” — a painting valued at $200 million — has likely reached its conclusion: Yale will retain the masterpiece.
Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit rejected Pierre Konowaloff’s appeal of a March 2014 summary judgment issued by the U.S. District Court for Connecticut. Konowaloff had originally sought the painting as well as $75,000 in damages from the University, claiming he is the rightful owner of The Night Café.
Konowaloff’s assertion stems from the Russian Revolution of 1918, during which the Bolsheviks seized the painting from his great-grandfather. The painting was transported to the United States and found its way to Yale through art collector Stephen Clark, class of 1903, who had acquired The Night Café, as well as a Paul Cezanne masterpiece in 1933. Upon his death in 1960, Clark bequeathed the former to Yale and the latter to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Konowaloff claims the Bolsheviks unlawfully took the two paintings from his great-grandfather, making him the rightful owner of both masterpieces.
Konowaloff subsequently filed lawsuits against the University and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in an effort to retrieve the paintings. The U.S. Court of Appeals ruled against Konowaloff in his case against the Met in 2012, and Yale Vice President and General Counsel Alexander Dreier said a single legal doctrine proved instrumental in foiling both cases.
“Yale prevailed both in the trial court and on appeal because it relied on a well-established doctrine, under which U.S. courts decline to examine the validity of acts undertaken by foreign governments within their own territory,” Dreier said. “We were also able to rely on the application of this doctrine in a virtually identical case that Mr. Konowaloff brought against the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”
Currently on display in the YUAG’s European Art wing, The Night Café arrived at the gallery in 1961. It depicts the interior of a nearly empty café with just five patrons seated at tables along the walls.
University President Peter Salovey said paintings like The Night Café are of tremendous value to students, researchers and the general public.
“Yale’s collections are of immense value for both research and teaching,” Salovey said. “Like other museums, our galleries and museums showcase important works like The Night Café for the public to enjoy and appreciate. But we also make all of the objects we own available to our own faculty and students, as well as to researchers around the world.”
Yale first filed a lawsuit against Konowaloff in 2009 preemptively after receiving a letter from his wife the previous year that said he was the painting’s rightful owner, after which Konowaloff filed a response and counterclaim. In a 2010 motion requesting a summary judgment, the University argued, among other things, that Konowaloff’s claims were beyond the statute of limitations and that a nation seizing property from citizens living domestically does not constitute a violation of international law.
Going forward, Konowaloff’s lawyer Allan Gerson LAW ’76 — who did not respond to multiple requests for comment — could appeal once again, this time to the Supreme Court. But if such an appeal were made, Dreier said he does not expect the Court to review it.
“Mr. Konowaloff did ask the Supreme Court to review the ruling in his lawsuit against the Met, but the Court refused to hear the case,” Dreier said. “I don’t know whether he will try again, but given that the two cases were decided on the basis of identical and very solid law, it seems very unlikely that the Supreme Court would agree to any further review.”
Van Gogh painted The Night Café in 1888.