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U.S. Court Upholds Soviet Russia's Seizure Of Van Gogh Painting

"The Night Cafe" by Vincent van Gogh
"The Night Cafe" by Vincent van Gogh

A U.S. appeals court has ruled against the heir of a Russian art collector in a dispute over the ownership of a $200 million Vincent van Gogh painting.

The Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on October 20 upheld a 2014 ruling by a lower court that dismissed the claims of Pierre Konowaloff, a businessman in France whose great-grandfather purchased the Dutch painter's "The Night Cafe" in 1908.

Russia nationalized the painting during the Soviet revolution, and the government later sold it. It eventually was given to Yale University by an alumnus who purchased it in the 1930s, where it has been on display since 1961.

Yale sued in 2009 to block Konowaloff from claiming the painting.

A lower court judge ruled in Yale's favor last year, citing doctrine under which U.S. courts don't question the validity of foreign governments' expropriation of goods within their territories.

In coming to its decision, the appeals court said the lower court acted appropriately.

Pierre Konowaloff
Pierre Konowaloff

It was not the first court ruling to go against Konowaloff. He unsuccessfully sued New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2012 over ownership of Paul Cézanne's "Madame Cézanne in the Conservatory." That painting remains on display in the museum.

In the current case, Yale had warned the court that the ownership of art and other goods valued at tens of billions of dollars could be questioned if Konowaloff were allowed to take the painting.

Allan Gerson, Konowaloff's lawyer, said Yale should have asked where the painting came from when it received it as a bequest. "It should have been adjudicated way back then before anyone took possession of it," he said.

Yale received the painting from alumnus Stephen Carlton Clark. The school said Clark bought the painting from a gallery in New York City in 1933 or 1934.

The appeals court in its judgement said Konowaloff apparently "accepted the validity" of the taking of the painting by the Soviets immediately after the revolution. As a result, he "admitted any legal claim or interest he has in the painting was extinguished at that time," the court said.

Gerson said it's more accurate to say his client did not challenge the confiscation. Gerson said the Russian government has cooperated since then, substantiating Konowaloff's claim that the painting was stolen.

He said the appeals court handed down its decision just days after he made his case.

"What shocked me is that there did not appear to be any consideration of my argument," he said.

"I have never seen such short shrift given to a serious argument," Gerson said. "The history books will show that this was really a terrible decision."

Konowaloff said his great-grandfather, industrialist and aristocrat Ivan Abramovich Morozov, bought the 1888 artwork, which shows the inside of a nearly empty cafe with a few customers seated at tables along the walls.

Morozov was one of three major art collectors whose collections were expropriated in 1918 by the Bolshevik revolutionary government.

With reporting by AP and Reuters
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