Van Gogh painting is worth up to $150m, claimant says

Dispute with Yale challenges taking by Soviet officials

By John Christoffersen
Associated Press / January 23, 2010

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NEW HAVEN - A Van Gogh painting at the center of a dispute between Yale University and a man who believes the artwork was stolen from his family during the Russian Revolution is worth $120 million to $150 million, the man’s attorney said yesterday.

The evaluation is the first public estimate of the painting’s value, and the lawyer, Allan Gerson, said it is from a top auction firm.

Gerson represents Pierre Konowaloff, who says he is the great-grandson of industrialist and aristocrat Ivan Morozov, who bought “The Night Cafe’’ in 1908. Russia nationalized Morozov’s property during the Communist revolution, and the Soviet government later sold the painting. The artwork, which shows the interior of a nearly empty cafe with a few customers seated at tables along the walls, has been hanging in the Yale University Art Gallery for almost 50 years.

A Yale spokesman said the university could not offer a value of the 1888 painting, saying the goal is to have it on public display for perpetuity.

Yale filed a lawsuit in federal court in March to assert its ownership of “The Night Cafe’’ and to block Konowaloff from claiming it. Yale contends the ownership of tens of billions of dollars of art and other goods could be thrown into doubt if Konowaloff is allowed to take the painting.

Court invalidation of Russian nationalization decrees from the early 20th century would also create tensions between the United States and Russia, Yale argues. The university says former owners have challenged titles to other property seized from them in Russia, but their attempts were rejected by the US Supreme Court and by state, federal, and foreign courts.

“Yale is confident that the court will see through Konowaloff’s latest rhetoric and recognize that he is asking a US court to turn back the clock 90 years and undo the Russian Revolution,’’ a university statement said yesterday.

Gerson said in court papers Thursday that Yale was engaging in “scare tactics.’’ He said neither Russia nor the United States expressed concern about the case and that any ruling would not affect Russian paintings.

Gerson says the trend by US courts has been to invalidate confiscations of art. He said in court papers that Yale’s argument amounted to compelling US courts to “rubber-stamp good title on any dictator’s plunder.’’

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

Konowaloff has filed court papers calling Yale’s acquisition “art laundering.’’ He argues that Russian authorities unlawfully confiscated the painting and that the United States deemed the theft a violation of international law.

Konowaloff wants the immediate return of the painting. as well as damages. He says Yale’s possession of the painting has increased its donations and bequests.

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