Nearly 130 years after Vincent Van Gogh painted “The Night Café,” and nearly a century after Russia’s Bolshevik government took the painting as its own from the collection of a private citizen, the U.S. Supreme Court has decided to not chime in on the $200 million painting’s rightful owner, meaning it will remain in a Yale University gallery, where it’s been since 1961.
The Bolsheviks appropriated this painting and others from the collection of Ivan Abramovich Morozov back in 1918, eventually putting it on display at a museum in Moscow. Fifteen years after taking the painting, the Soviets sold it to Stephen Carlton Clark, a collector and an heir to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune. Clark bequeathed the artwork to Yale, which received it after the collector’s death.
It wasn’t until 2008 that Pierre Konowaloff — who is believed to be the great-grandson of Morozov — learned that “The Night Café” was in Yale’s collection. When he wrote to Yale to inquire about the ownership of the painting, the school sued to preempt any attempt to claim title to the artwork.
Konowaloff counter-sued, alleging that Yale is not the rightful owner because it obtained the painting from Clark, who had received it from a “criminal network.”
In 2014, a U.S. District Court granted summary judgment in Yale’s favor, siding with the university’s argument that the “act of state” doctrine — which says that U.S. courts “will not examine the validity of a taking of property within its own territory by a foreign sovereign government” — prevents the court from deciding whether the Bolsheviks committed a crime when seizing privately owned art collections.
Last October, Konowaloff lost again before a federal appeals court, which affirmed the lower court’s decision on the same basis.
With SCOTUS denying Konowaloff’s petition, he can no longer legally challenge Yale’s ownership of the artwork, regardless of whether or not he believes the Bolsheviks acted illegally.
Konowaloff had previously failed to make a similar claim to Cézanne’s “Madame Cézanne in the Conservatory,” which the Metropolitan Museum of Art had acquired after it was taken by the Bolsehviks.