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Man says he'll press claim over Van Gogh painting

By John Christoffersen
Associated Press Writer / March 27, 2009
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NEW HAVEN, Conn.—A descendant of the original owner of a famous painting by Vincent Van Gogh will press his claim against Yale University that he is the rightful owner, his attorney said Friday.

The Ivy League university sued Tuesday in federal court in Connecticut to assert its ownership rights over "The Night Cafe" and block Pierre Konowaloff from claiming it. Konowaloff is the purported great-grandson of industrialist and aristocrat Ivan Morozov, who owned the painting in 1918.

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

Allan Gerson, Konowaloff's attorney, said Friday he will argue that his client is the rightful owner of the painting. He also said financial compensation is a possible solution.

"He wants his claim to rightful ownership vindicated," Gerson told The Associated Press.

But Konowaloff, if he wins the case, will ensure that the public can still view the painting, Gerson said.

"His intent is to ensure that it continues to be on public display," Gerson said. "He does not want to deprive the public of the right to view this important painting."

Konowaloff contends that his great-grandfather's property, including the painting, was illegally confiscated.

"Yale has benefited from an unlawful confiscation, and we will assert that fully in our answer to the complaint," Gerson said.

Yale says in its lawsuit that while the Russian nationalization of property was sharply at odds with American values, it did not violate international laws.

Yale received the painting in 1961 through a bequest from Stephen Carlton Clark, a Yale alumnus who founded the Baseball Hall of Fame. Clark bought the painting from a gallery in New York City.

"Yale had no reason to question the legitimacy of Mr. Clark's generous bequest in 1961. Nor does it today," Yale's attorney wrote.

The gift was widely reported at the time and Konowaloff's parents did not make any claims for the painting, according to the lawsuit. Morozov's widow also did not make a claim.

Konowaloff is barred from recovering the painting or its value because he failed to take action within three years of what he claimed was Yale's wrongful possession, the lawsuit contends.

Gerson rejected the statue of limitations argument, saying the confiscation was illegal.

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