Artistic Differences: Who Owns Vincent van Gogh’s “The Night Cafe”?

night-cafeBy Sherah Ndjongo

Recently, a federal appeals court has stood by Yale University in a heated legal battle over who will rightfully receive ownership of a $200 million Vincent van Gogh painting. Pierre Konowaloff, who claimed to be the owner of van Gogh’s 1888 painting, “The Night Café,” emphasized that the artwork was taken from his family during the 1918 Bolshevik revolution. He explained that when the property of his industrialist and aristocrat great-grandfather, Ivan Morozov, was nationalized by Russia, “The Night Cafe,” which he had bought in 1908, was removed from his possession and was later sold by the government.

Before Yale won this federal court fight to keep the world-renowned Impressionist painting within its confines. Konowaloff had already lost a related court case in the U.S. District Court in Connecticut. The ruling stated that when that the act-of-state doctrine is applied, U.S. courts are barred from ruling on the actions of foreign governments. Additionally, Konowaloff had lost another similar case against the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2012, but in that situation, the dispute was over a painting by Paul Cezanne.

“The Night Café” has been displayed by Yale University for more than 50 years, but it only took four days for the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to conclude through a summary order that Yale did in fact own the painting. Similar to the result of Knowaloff’s last case, among the arguments raised by the judges in the appeals court was that Konowaloff “accepted the validity” of the painting’s confiscation by the Soviets immediately after the revolution. Therefore, by doing so, he “admitted any legal claim or interest he has in the painting was extinguished at that time.”

Allan Gerson, Pierre Konowaloff’s attorney, could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. He has admitted that he has considered taking this route, but he has also stated that, “It would be a hard road to go any further.” He is in complete shock “that they would decide a weighty matter like this in four days.” In fact, Gerson continues to stand by the belief that it’s more accurate to say his client did not challenge the confiscation. According to him, the Russian government co-operated, and his client fully agrees. “What is shocked me is that there did not appear to be any consideration of my argument,” Konowaloff said.

On the other hand, Thomas Conroy, a Yale spokesperson, released a statement saying “Yale is pleased that the appeals court has confirmed that Yale is the rightful owner of Vincent van Gogh’s ‘The Night Café,’ and the university is proud to keep the painting on display, free and open to the public.” The institution previously sued in 2009 to block Konowaloff from claiming it and has also argued that the ownership of art and other valued pieces could also be questioned if Konowaloff were allowed to take the painting.

Yale has had the painting since 1961. It received the painting from Yale alumnus Stephen Carlton Clark, and the school said Clark bought the painting from a gallery in New York City in 1933 or 1934.  For now the 1888 artwork, “The Night Cafe,” which depicts the inside of a nearly empty cafe with a few customers seated at tables along the walls, will still be on display in the Yale University Art Gallery at 1111 Chapell St.

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About the Author: Sherah, 17, has been homeschooled for three years. “I am passionate about raising awareness about topics such as current events and culture and being able to effectively deliver a message that matters to me. I also enjoy researching and writing in hopes of educating, informing, and inspiring others.”

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