The United States Supreme Court has been asked to decide whether Yale is the rightful owner of The Night Café, a Vincent Van Gogh masterpiece valued at $200 million, currently owned by the University and the subject of a prolonged legal battle.
On Jan. 15, lawyers representing Pierre Konowaloff — who argues that he is the rightful owner of the painting — filed his case with the Supreme Court. The filing states that the Supreme Court should hear the case for several reasons, including that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which denied Konowaloff’s appeal in October 2015, ignored key legal precedent, and that the primary doctrine on which the defense has relied is inapplicable in this instance.
“We thought it was wrongly decided below, and when something is wrongly decided it is unjust,” Konowaloff’s attorney Allan Gerson told the News. “So what led us to move to the Supreme Court was a strong sense of injustice — that this was handled unjustly by the district courts, the court of appeals. They did not listen to our arguments carefully.”
Konowaloff’s claim to the painting can be traced to the Russian Revolution of 1918, when the Bolsheviks took The Night Café and a Paul Cézanne masterpiece from his great-grandfather. Decades later, the former found its way to Yale and the latter found its way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In a 2012 case against the Met, Konowaloff claimed that because the Bolsheviks unlawfully took the Cézanne painting, he is its rightful owner. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit rejected his argument, and the Supreme Court subsequently declined to review it.
University President Peter Salovey said his office expects the case against Yale to meet a similar end.
“Yale’s attorneys believe it is very unlikely that the Supreme Court will agree to hear this case and are confident that The Night Café will remain at Yale, free and open to the public,” Salovey said.
Alexander Dreier, University vice president and general counsel, said Yale has prevailed in previous trials concerning the painting, as did the Met, because of the well-established act of state doctrine. The doctrine stipulates that U.S. courts decline to examine the validity of acts undertaken by foreign governments within their own territory.
But Gerson said the doctrine does not apply to this case because Russia is willing to assist the petitioner. He added that the Second Circuit’s usage of the doctrine conflicts with decisions made in other cases by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, so the Supreme Court should resolve the disagreement.
Still, Dreier said he does not expect the filing to move forward.
“Konowaloff asked the Supreme Court to review the ruling in his lawsuit against the Met, and the Court refused to hear the case,” he said. “I think it is very likely that the Court will also reject Mr. Konowaloff’s petition for review of the decision in the Yale case.”
But Gerson said the Met case and the Yale case are incomparable, as he argued in the former that Russia violated international law in confiscating cultural property. In the case of The Night Café, however, he is not challenging Russian actions, so the act of state doctrine does not apply and the results of the Met case are by no means indicative of what is to come, Gerson said.
Gerson added that after Yale responds to his filing, which it has yet to do, the Supreme Court would probably indicate whether it will hear the case at some point in the coming months. Dreier said that his office will likely respond to the Supreme Court filing in the near future.
Van Gogh painted The Night Café in 1888.