Morozov vs Yale University & Metropolitan Museum
1933: The Soviet government sells to Stephen Carlton Clark through the Matthiesen (Berlin) and Knoedler & Compagny (New York) galleries 2 paintings from the collection of Ivan Abramovitch Morozov nationalized by Lenin in December 1918: “Le Café de Nuit” by Vincent Van Gogh and “Madame Cézanne dans la serre” by Paul Cézanne.
1960, september 17th: Stephen Carlton Clark dies. In his will he bequeaths “Le Café de Nuit” to Yale University and “Madame Cézanne in the Greenhouse” to the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
2009: The legal battle of Ivan Morozov’s heirs to recover the paintings begins.
“Night Cafe” Vincent Van Gogh
Oil on canvas 72,4 x 92,1. Dated 1888.
Acquired by Ivan Morozov at the exhibition “Zolotoïe Rouno”
for 3 000 roubles in 1908.
“Madame Cézanne in the conservatory” Paul Cézanne
Oil on canvas 72 x 92 . Dated 1891.
Acquired by Ivan Morozov from Ambroise Vollard
on avril 29th, 1911.
– In March 2008, Pierre Konowaloff’s wife, Catherine, wrote to the Metropolitan Museum and Yale University to obtain information about the acquisition of the paintings by the two museums explaining that the family was trying to trace the sales: “Dear Sirs, I’m looking for information about the provenance of the Van Gogh ‘Night Café’. I already know that Mr Stephen Clark offered this painting to your museum, but I would like to know how and when he acquired it. This painting was previously in the collection of husband’s great grand-father in Moscow (Ivan Morozov’s Collection). The hole collection was nationalized in 1918 by the bolsheviks and we are trying to understand how this Van Gogh painting could leave USSR to USA and be owned by a private person. Thanking you in advance for your reply. Best regards.” An identical e-mail is sent to the MET. (at that time the family still had very little information about the history of these 2 paintings).
– The Metropolitan Museum answers quite quickly. A first time: “Dear Ms Konowaloff, I am pleased to respond to your inquiry. During the great depression the Russian government sold various works from the state collections, including “Madame Cezanne in the conservatory”, from the Museum of Modern Art in Moscow, which was purchased by Stephen Clark, through the firm of Knoedler ans Co, New York, on May 9th, 1933. Then a second reply: “Regrettably, we do not have a copy of the invoice-or indeed, any fisrthand documentation (such as original correspondence, or a journal entry)- regarding Mr. Clark’s purchase of the portrait of “Madame Cézanne in the conservatory”. In looking through our files to properly answer your inquiry, I see that the information I was able to provide you, comes from a notation at the bottom of a fact sheet sent to us in 1963 from Clark Estates, which reads simply: “Purchase from Knoedler and Co, May 9th, 1933“.
Yale University replied for the first time: “On vacation until March 24th, but will be happy to look into the provenance of the Van Gogh when I return“. Then a second reply on April 29: “Dear Ms Konowaloff, Thank you so much for your patience regarding this matter. We have forwarded your request to the appropriate curatorial department, and hopfully someone will get back to you as soon as possible“.
– In May 2008, the famous lawyer and law professor, Allan Gerson, took up the case in order to challenge the legality of the sales and to request the return of the paintings to the heirs of the collector. He contacted the two museums. Immediately Yale University took the case to court in order to counter the future claims of the family of the looted collector, who considered that the paintings had been acquired illegally by Clark, the “looting” carried out by Lenin being no different from that carried out by the Nazis: “Yale must say where the difference lies! I claim there is none,” wrote Allan Gerson. According to University spokesman Tom Conroy, Yale is confident that it is the rightful owner of the painting and that the court will confirm it. Jonathan Freiman, the university’s lawyer, points out that: “Even if the Soviet-led nationalization was contrary to American values, it was legal …… I think the court will see that the claim is not admissible ….. such a case would have a huge impact on museums, not only in the United States but around the world if Pierre Konowaloff won the case. According to law professor Patty Gerstenblith: “Property nationalised during the Revolution was generally considered to belong to the USSR….. if Allan Gerson succeeds, this will be an interesting development in jurisprudence towards the protection of works of art and their owners“. Allan Gerson prepares the response to the Yale proceedings and starts proceedings against the Metropolitan Museum.
– In the first instance, the American courts considered the claim to be unfounded and opposed the state doctrine stating that American courts could not extrapolate the policies of Sovereign States and that, moreover, in 1918, the American government had not recognised the Soviet state (which did not occur until November 16th, 1933).
– Allan Gerson then appealed against these judgments and decided to change his tactics, leaving aside the question of nationalisation, attacking the legality of the sales and the fraudulent arrangements for their acquisition by Clark. However, for the Court of Appeal, the fact that Pierre Konowaloff had abandoned the reason for the 1918 expropriation showed that he accepted it and that no further action could therefore be taken, as all the requisitions had become null and void, thus confirming the museums’ position and rejecting Ivan Morozov’s heir.
– On March 28th, 2016, the Supreme Court ended the proceedings by confirming the decision of the Court of Appeal, definitively dismissing Pierre Konowaloff’s claims.