Art law News USA

Van Gogh’s Night Café belongs to Yale, Connecticut court rules

The work’s seizure by Bolsheviks in 1918 was an act of state

Vincent van Gogh's The Night Café, 1888, was bequeathed to Yale by the American collector Stephen Clark in 1961

The heir of a Russian industrialist and collector has lost his claim on one of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings, The Night Café, 1888, when a federal court in Connecticut ruled on 20 March that the painting belongs to Yale University.

Ivan Morozov’s entire art collection, including The Night Café, had been confiscated in 1918 following the Russian Revolution, when the Bolsheviks abolished private property. The painting was then sold in 1933 to the American collector Stephen Clark, who bequeathed it to Yale in 1961.

Morozov’s heir, Pierre Konowaloff, had argued that the seizure and sale by the Russian government were illegal and that he was the rightful owner. The court, however, said it could not even examine the legality of taking The Night Café because of the “act of state” doctrine, which prohibits US courts from hearing any cases that involve acts done by a recognised foreign government within its own territory. Although the US did not formally recognise the new Russian government until 1933, this “is retroactive in effect and validates all the actions and conduct of the government… from the commencement of its existence,” the court explained.

“We are, of course, very pleased with Judge Thompson’s decision,” the university's vice president and general counsel Dorothy Robinson told the campus newspaper. “This great work has been cared for over a half century by the Yale University Art Gallery where it is on display to the public, and we look forward to having it available here for generations to come.”

In 2011, Konowaloff lost a similar lawsuit against the Metropolitan Museum seeking Paul Cezanne’s 1891 Portrait of Madame Cezanne.

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