Yale University v. Konowaloff

This case involves a dispute over the ownership of Vincent Van Gogh’s famous painting “The Night Café”.  Pierre Konowaloff, the heir and great-grandson of the Russian aristocrat, Ivan Morozov claimed that the Russian government seized the work owned by Morozov during the Communist takeover of Russia in 1918.  The painting was sold to the Knoedler Gallery in New York where it was purchased by Yale University alumnus Stephen C. Clark in 1933 and bequeathed to the university in 1961.

In March 2009, Yale filed a declaratory judgment against Konowaloff stating that the sale of artwork “nationalized” by the Soviet Union was valid and as such the painting was a legitimate gift which it has had on display for almost 50 years.  In May 2009, the plaintiff filed a response and counterclaim for the return of the work or damages and a few months earlier, filed a similar suit against the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The hearing against Yale was subsequently suspended by the District Court of Connecticut until judgment in the case against the Metropolitan Museum came into force.  In Konowaloff v. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the plaintiff argued that Paul Cézanne’s “Lady in the Conservatory” which was sold alongside “The Night Café” to the Knoedler Gallery and bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum in 1961 should be returned to him. 

In December 2012, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s 2011 decision in favor of the Metropolitan Museum based on the act of state doctrine.  The doctrine bars domestic courts from reviewing actions taken by a foreign government.  US Courts will therefore not examine the validity of property nationalized by the Russian government after the Revolution. 

On 21 February 2014, Konowaloff asked the US Court to include Russia in the legal proceedings against Yale University.  However, in March, the judge followed the precedent set in Konowaloff v. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and dismissed Konowaloff’s claim.

Vincent van Gogh, The Night Cafe

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