By 1913, Morozov’s collection had gained worldwide renown, and likely would have continued to grow in worth had it not been for a rude political awakening.
That decade saw the October Revolution, the rise of the Bolsheviks and the wrenching of Morozov’s cherished paintings from his possession. In December of 1918, Bolshevik secret police occupied his home and seized his art collection, as well as his furniture and other household items.
Vladimir Lenin’s socialist government had singled out Morozov’s collection for nationalization, taking state ownership of his carefully selected pieces and establishing from them a “Museum of Modern Western.”
Today, all but two of the works — from such artists as Sisley, Renoir and Monet — remain in Russia. One, a Cezanne, can be viewed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The other, Vincent van Gogh’s “Night Cafe,” hangs in a sunny alcove at the Yale University Art Gallery. It is valued at $200 million, and for years, the sole heir to Morozov’s estate has been fighting to get it back.
According to court documents, Pierre Konowaloff, a French citizen and the great grandson of Morozov, learned that “Night Cafe” was in Yale’s possession in 2008. By then, it had already hung in the gallery for nearly half a century, since it was bequeathed to the university by an alumnus in 1961.
Neither Konowaloff’s parents and grandparents ever spoke of recovering part of Morozov’s collection, he told the Moscow Times. They wished to leave behind painful memories of that time.
But he was determined to right what he perceived to be an historic wrong. Wrested as the art had been from his great-grandfather’s hands, he thought, they should at least be returned to his native country, where most of the collection is housed in Moscow’s Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts.
“I am fighting for the memory of my great grandfather,” Konowaloff told the Moscow Times. “I want ‘The Night Cafe’ returned to its rightful place, because I know just how much my great grandfather missed his collection.”
Upon learning of Yale’s possession of the work, Konowaloff called the university, demanding that the painting be returned to him. The university refused, and proceeded to file a suit blocking Konowaloff from staking a claim on “Night Cafe.”
Konowaloff filed a counterclaim, launching a years-long bid to retrieve the work that ended Monday at the U.S. Supreme Court.
According to Konowaloff, the painting had been obtained through “an act of theft,” and thus did not rightfully belong to Yale.
The court, without comment, rejected Konowaloff’s appeal of a 2014 circuit court decision that dismissed his claims on the painting. The Yale gallery can continue to hang onto one of its most prized works.
Entangled in the legal battle was the oft-debated question of ownership, and whether modern day re-appropriation of priceless artwork should be undertaken to right a wrong allegedly committed long ago.
The high court’s decision not to accept Konowaloff’s appeal effectively maintains a crucial status quo within the art world, where countless works acquired through arguably dubious channels have found their way into the most public and esteemed spaces and most trusted hands, like the Yale Art Gallery.
This notion formed a part of the university’s claim, the AP reported, as it “argued that the ownership of art and other goods valued at tens of billions of dollars could be questioned if Konowaloff were allowed to take the painting.”
A similar claim on the Cezanne previously owned by Morozov has likewise been dismissed by lower courts.
Konowaloff then took a different tack, asserting that the painting had been “illicitly” transferred from the Soviet Union to America in 1933.
Using affidavits from Russian officials, Konowaloff asserted that Stephen Carlton Clark, the alumnus who bequeathed the painting to Yale, should never have had it in the first place. Court documents said “contrary to the existing practice of multiple authorizations, there was no record of the van Gogh painting’s sale to Clark and that it appeared to have been unlawfully exported from the Soviet Union.”
“We’re not saying that Yale is an embezzler, but that it stands in the shoes of an embezzler,” Konowaloff’s lawyer told the Yale Daily News last year. “For purposes of titlement, your title to it is only as good as the person who gave it to you.”
Konowaloff had no interest in the painting and, therefore, no right to question the painting’s path to Yale. The painting ceased to belong to Morozov when it was seized along with his other possessions in 1918, so no heir of his today can claim ownership over something Morozov himself did not possess at the time of his death.
“What shocked me is that there did not appear to be any consideration of my argument,” Allan Gerson, Konowaloff’s lawyer, told the AP. The case was Pierre Konowaloff v. Yale University, et al.
Morozov left Russia one year after his factories and paintings were seized, and moved to Switzerland in 1919. He died just two years later, at the age of 49.