"Night Cafe" Van Gogh 1888
In recent days we have seen a number of high-profile art law suits, both criminal and defensive. Yale University filed for a defensive law suit, to secure its ownership of the star painting in its Yale Art Gallery, the iconic "Night Cafe" by Van Gogh (1888). There have been many headline-grabbing lawsuits brought by grandchildren of the victims of Nazi or Stalinist seizure of artworks, who have filed to have works restored to them, plucked out of museums and private collections. (The dramatic story of the restitution of Malevich paintings will be featured in the first issue of ARCA's Journal of Art Crime). Now we begin to see storied institutions donning legal battle armor in anticipation of a potential lawsuit.
The issue at Yale is with Pierre Konowaloff, the great-grandson of wealthy aristocrat Ivan Morozov, who owned Van Gogh's painting in 1918. The Russian government nationalized and appropriated Morozov's property during the Communist revolution--including the painting, which was later sold by the Soviet government. "Night Cafe" has been hanging in the Yale Art Gallery for more than five decades. In 2008, Konowaloff's attorney asserted his client's ownership title to the painting, and Konowaloff has publicly stated that he wants the title of the painting transferred to the Russian nation, and that he wants to receive financial compensation. Yale declared that it wishes to "remove any cloud over its ownership," pre-empting a suit on the part of Konowaloff to reclaim the painting.
Between an art theft from Yale's Slifka Center linked to a drug and arms dealer, a lawsuit from the descendants of Geronimo to reclaim the skull of the warrior chief that they claim was looted by members of the secret society Skull & Bones and is being used in the society for rituals, and this recent furor over "Night Cafe," Yale has provided a petri dish for the study of art crime over the past two months alone.