The Russians Are Coming

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The Night Café, Van Gogh, 1888

The Night Cafe, Van Gogh, 1888

We learn today that Yale University has brought suit to assert its right of ownership over what might be the most famous single work in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery, Van Gogh’s The Night Café. The university brought suit in a federal court in Connecticut this week to have its rights recognized and to block an attempt to retrieve the painting by a man who says he’s the great grandson of Ivan Morozov, whose famous collection was seized by the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution. In court papers Yale says it was contacted last year by representatives of the Morozov descendant, Pierre Konowaloff, who lives in Paris.

Morozov of course was one of the two outstanding Russian collectors and patrons of modern art early in the 20th century. The other was Sergei Shchukin, whose collection was also nationalized. Both collections were eventually divided among various Soviet museums, chiefly the Pushkin in Moscow and the Hermitage in what was then Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. But in the early 1930s two of the Morozov pictures were sold by the Soviet government to an American gallery. One of those was The Night Café, which was purchased soon after by Stephen Carlton Clark, a Yale grad who donated the painting to his alma mater in 1961.

The attorneys for Yale urge that American courts should not attempt to undo what they euphemistically call “the program of property reform” — also known as forcible seizure — undertaken by the Soviets. Interestingly, Russian law prevents the descendants of families whose art was seized by the Bolsheviks from suing for its return if it’s held in Russian state institutions like the Hermitage. For that reason the families can only hope to recover work that’s gone abroad. And in that connection Konowaloff has been heard from before. In 2007 the Russian government became anxious about the possibility that claims might be made by Konowaloff and a Schchukin grandson against paintings that the Hermitage was planning to lend to a big show at the Royal Academy in London. Twenty-five pieces destined for that show, including Matisse’s The Dance, had been seized from Shchukin’s collection. Another dozen came from Morozov’s.

At the last minute the Russians got cold feet and threatened to hold back the works. When the British Culture Secretary came up with a bill granting immunity from seizure to all artistic property on temporary display in the U.K., the show went on. At the time, the London daily The Telegraph reported that the Royal Academy went so far as to offer Konowaloff and Shchukin’s grandson each 5000 British pounds — about $10,000 back then — to promise not to bring suits while the show was open.

Note to Yale: they refused.