Inside the Fight Over a Cherished Van Gogh Seized in 1918

Grabbed by Bolsheviks, purchased by Singer heir, bequeathed to Yale
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 29, 2016 7:31 AM CDT
Updated Apr 2, 2016 3:00 PM CDT
Inside the Fight Over a Cherished van Gogh Seized in 1918
In this photo provided by Yale University, an 1888 oil painting entitled "Night Cafe" by Vincent van Gogh is shown.   (AP Photo/Vincent Van Gogh)

The case is Konowaloff v. Yale, 15-921; the story is fascinating; the outcome is crushing, at least for Konowaloff. Pierre Konowaloff in 2008 learned that "Night Cafe," a Vincent Van Gogh painting worth $200 million, had for almost five decades been hanging in a gallery at Yale University. Before that, it was in the hands Stephen Clark, heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune, who in 1933 bought it from the Soviets and bequeathed it to Yale. How the Soviets acquired it lay at the heart of his court case, which reached its end on Monday. Konowaloff's great-grandfather was a wealthy Russian whose travels to Paris facilitated the acquisition of an art collection that gained "worldwide renown," as the Washington Post puts it. In December 1918, Bolshevik secret police took it all.

Konowaloff wanted the Van Gogh back and has been challenging Yale for years, without success. Bloomberg explains the legal barrier: A New York federal appeals court pointed to the "act of state" doctrine, which basically means American courts won't "second-guess" a foreign government's decision to seize its citizens' property. The Moscow Times reports the doctrine was applied to this case, even though the US government didn't acknowledge Vladimir Lenin's government; recognition of the Soviets came in 1933, when the painting was sold to Clark. In his petition to the Supreme Court, Konowaloff changed gears, now arguing Yale's ownership was "derived from a theft," this stemming from his legal team's inability to find a record proving the van Gogh's legal sale to Clark. The Supreme Court turned away the appeal without comment. (Is another woman's smile behind the Mona Lisa's smile?)

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