Attorney: Yale turned blind eye when acquiring painting

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) – Yale University’s acquisition of a Vincent Van Gogh painting that Russia once claimed as its own amounted to acceptance of stolen property and “art laundering,” a descendant of an earlier owner alleges.

Pierre Konowaloff of France argues in recent court papers that Russian authorities in the 1917 revolution unlawfully confiscated the painting owned by Konowaloff’s ancestor and that the United States deemed the theft a violation of international law.

“Yale’s continued and wrongful detention of the unlawfully confiscated The Night Cafe is prohibited by customary and international treaty law,” Konowaloff’s attorneys wrote in the filings. “Yale should be held accountable for financially benefiting and being complicit in the pillage and plunder and unlawful confiscation of cultural property.”

The Ivy League university sued in March in federal court to assert its ownership rights over the painting and to block Konowaloff from claiming it. Konowaloff is the purported great-grandson of industrialist and aristocrat Ivan Morozov, who bought the painting in 1908.

Russia nationalized Morozov’s property during the Communist revolution. The painting, which the Soviet government later sold, has been hanging in the Yale University Art Gallery for almost 50 years.

Yale received the painting through a bequest from Yale alumnus Stephen Carlton Clark. The school says Clark bought the painting, which shows the inside of a nearly empty cafe, with a few customers seated at tables along the walls, from a gallery in New York City in 1933 or 1934.

But Konowaloff alleges Clark knew of the painting’s ownership history and that “Yale engaged in a policy of willful ignorance” when it accepted the piece in 1961.

“As an institution of higher learning of worldwide renown, Yale knew, or had reason to suspect, that it’s bequest from Clark involved looted art,” Konowaloff’s attorneys wrote. “Yale’s unquestioned acceptance of the Clark bequest amounted to ‘art laundering’ that involved the knowing receipt of stolen goods.”

Konowaloff wants the immediate return of the painting as well as damages.

Yale responded Tuesday that the Russian nationalization of property, while sharply at odds with American values, did not violate international law.

“Clark’s title to the painting was good, and so is Yale’s,” Yale said in a statement. “Clark bought the painting in good faith. When he left it to Yale, the painting had been publicly displayed for decades, and no one had ever contested Clark’s ownership of it.”

Konowaloff said he became the official heir of the Morozov collection after his father died in 2002 and he began to try to document the inventory. He said his grandfather did not try to do so “for reasons of personal security and due to the lack of any available judicial remedies at the time.

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