Man Loses Quest to Reclaim $200 Million Van Gogh Painting Seized by Bolsheviks

After years in court, the painting will remain at Yale.

Vincent van Gogh, Le café de nuit (The Night Café) (1888). Photo: courtesy Yale University Art Gallery.

The Supreme Court has ruled that Vincent van Gogh‘s Le café de nuit (The Night Café), worth an estimated $200 million, will remain in the US at Yale University Art Gallery, reports Agence France-Presse. The heir of the original owner, Russian industrialist Ivan Morozov, has been fighting since 2008 to reclaim the painting, which was purchased in 1908, and seized in 1918, after the Bolshevik Party took power.

Up to this point, Morozov, who frequently traveled to Paris to buy art, had one of the world’s premiere art collections, featuring Paul CézannePablo Picasso, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, and many others. But following the October Revolution in 1917, Vladimir Lenin singled out Morozov’s collection for nationalization, and the state displayed the seized works in the Second Museum of Modern Western Painting.

The Soviet government sold the painting to a Berlin’s Matthiesen Gallery in 1933, and the canvas made its way to New York’s Knoedler & Company. There, it was purchased by Stephen Clark, heir to the Singer Sewing Machine Company fortune, who bequeathed it to Yale when he died in 1961.

Valentin Serov, <em>Portrait of Ivan Morozov</em> (1910). <br>Photo: Tretyakov Gallery.

Valentin Serov, Portrait of Ivan Morozov (1910).
Photo: Tretyakov Gallery.

The refusal to hear Pierre Konowaloff’s appeal upholds a 2014 circuit court ruling, which cited the “act of state” doctrine in affirming Yale’s right to the work. The US cannot overturn property seizures enacted by foreign governments—even though the US did not recognize Soviet rule until 1933. (The State Department makes an exception in cases where property was stolen by the Nazi regime during World War II.)

In his final appeal, Konowaloff took a different tack, arguing that while the seizure might have been legal, the sale itself was not. “Knoedler & Company surreptitiously arranged for [Clark] to acquire The Night Café illicitly through the Matthiesen Gallery in Berlin,” argued Konowaloff’s petition to the Supreme Court. Because there was no record of the sale in the Soviet Union, the petition claimed, the painting was “unlawfully exported.”

Pierre Konowaloff. <br>Photo: via YouTube.

Pierre Konowaloff.
Photo: via YouTube.

“I am fighting for the memory of my great-grandfather,” Konowaloff told the Moscow Times prior to the ruling against him. “I want The Night Cafe returned to its rightful place, because I know just how much my great-grandfather missed his collection.”

The court found, however, that Konowaloff’s claim to the painting was faulty, because it did not belong to Morozov after 1918. “What shocked me is that there did not appear to be any consideration of my argument,” Allan Gerson, Konowaloff’s lawyer, told the Associated Press.

Yale University Art Gallery, Louis Kahn building, view of west window-wall. <br>Image: © Elizabeth Felicella.

Yale University Art Gallery, Louis Kahn building, view of west window-wall.
Image: © Elizabeth Felicella.

With the Supreme Court’s rejection of the new argument, Konowaloff, who lives in France, is now out of legal options in his prolonged quest for restitution.

This is not the first time that US courts have rejected Konowaloff’s claims. In 2011, he lost a case against New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art over Cézanne’s Portrait of Madame Cezanne (1891), also based on the “act of state” doctrine. The rest of Morozov’s collection remains in Russia, where it is divided between the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow and the Hermitage State Museum in St. Petersburg.

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