The U. S. Supreme Court has declined to hear an appeal of a case concerning ownership of The Night Café, a van Gogh masterpiece valued at $200 million, leaving the painting in Yale’s possession and ending a yearslong legal battle between the University and Pierre Konowaloff, who argued that the painting belongs to his family.
On Jan. 15, lawyers representing Konowaloff filed the appeal, which the Supreme Court rejected without comment. U.S. District Court Judge for Connecticut Alvin Thompson dismissed Konowaloff’s claims in March 2014, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit rejected Konowaloff’s subsequent appeal in October 2015. Now that the Supreme Court has done the same, both Yale and the plaintiff’s legal representation told the News that the case has run its course.
“This is the end of the road,” Konowaloff’s attorney Allan Gerson said. “There is not much I or anyone can do except respect the rulings of the court, but I do believe there has been a miscarriage of justice.”
Gerson added that while he held out “hope against hope” that the Supreme Court would hear the case, the body receives many requests for review, and it is difficult to convince the court to accept one particular case. About 7,000 to 8,000 cases are appealed to the Supreme Court each year, and the court grants and hears oral arguments for about 80 of them.
Alexander Dreier, the University vice president and general counsel, said the University never expected the Supreme Court to accept the appeal.
“We were confident that the Supreme Court would leave the appellate ruling in place, and we don’t see any opening for a new challenge to Yale’s ownership,” Dreier said.
Gerson said that going forward, he does not expect to communicate with Yale about the case, as it can go no further than the Supreme Court.
The Night Café will remain at the Yale University Art Gallery, where it first arrived in 1961. The painting depicts the interior of a nearly empty café with just five patrons seated at tables along the walls.
Stephen Clark, class of 1903, acquired the painting in 1933 when he bought it from a New York art gallery and bequeathed it to Yale upon his death in 1960. Konowaloff claimed the Bolsheviks unlawfully took the painting from his great-grandfather in 1918, making him its rightful owner.
University President Peter Salovey told the News in October that paintings like The Night Café are of high value to the Yale community 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.”
Dreier said the YUAG’s retention of The Night Café is a just end to the case and clearly mandated by the law.
Van Gogh painted The Night Café in 1888.