Court sides with Yale over van Gogh painting’s owner
Hartford, Conn. — A federal appeals court has sided with Yale University in a dispute over the ownership of a $200 million Vincent van Gogh painting.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week upheld a 2014 ruling by a lower court that dismissed the claims of Pierre Konowaloff. He said the Dutch painter’s “The Night Cafe” was stolen from his family during the Russian Revolution.
Yale has had the painting since 1961. It sued in 2009 to block Konowaloff from claiming it.
The federal judge who backed Yale last year cited doctrine in which U.S. courts don’t examine the validity of foreign governments’ expropriation orders. In its decision, the appeals court said the lower court acted appropriately.
Yale said it was pleased by the ruling and would be proud to keep the painting on display.
The Ivy League university argued that the ownership of art and other goods valued at tens of billions of dollars could be questioned if Konowaloff were allowed to take the painting.
Allan Gerson, Konowaloff’s lawyer, said Yale should have asked where the painting came from when it received it as a bequest. “It should have been adjudicated way back then before anyone took possession of it,” he said.
Yale received the painting from Yale alumnus Stephen Carlton Clark. The school said Clark bought the painting from a gallery in New York City in 1933 or 1934.
Among the arguments raised by the appeals court, the judges said Konowaloff “accepted the validity” of the taking of the painting by the Soviets immediately after the revolution. As a result, he “admitted any legal claim or interest he has in the painting was extinguished at that time,” the court said.
Gerson said it’s more accurate to say his client did not challenge the confiscation. Gerson said the Russian government cooperated, substantiating Konowaloff’s claim that the painting was stolen.
He also said the court handed down its decision just days after he made his case.
“What shocked me is that there did not appear to be any consideration of my argument,” he said.
Konowaloff said his great-grandfather, industrialist and aristocrat Ivan Morozov, bought “The Night Cafe” in 1908. Russia nationalized Morozov’s property during the Soviet revolution, and the government later sold the painting.
The 1888 artwork, which shows the inside of a nearly empty cafe with a few customers seated at tables along the walls, has been hanging in the Yale University Art Gallery.
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