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Pierre Konowaloff, a naturalized Frenchman, claims that Van Gogh's Night Cafe, which has hung on the walls of Yale University for nearly 50 years, was confiscated from his great-grandfather Ivan Morozov on the orders of Lenin. The heir of a Tsarist-era aristocrat has launched a legal fight to reclaim a Van Gogh masterpiece. Konowaloff's lawyers have written to Yale demanding the painting's surrender.
Regarded as one of the artist's most profound interpretations of the human condition, Night Cafe was bequeathed to Yale in 1960 by Stephen Clark, a collector and benefactor who attended the university. The university was forced to file a suit in a U.S. court to resolve the issue of ownership. It was originally sold to a Berlin art gallery as one of dozens of masterpieces offloaded by Stalin in the early 1930s to finance a five-year plan meant to modernize Soviet industry and agriculture.
Yale maintains that the sale was legal and cannot therefore be challenged. Konowaloff says he intends to give the painting to the Russian state in exchange for unspecified financial compensation.
A court ruling in his favour would trigger a flood of similar claims from Russian emigres whose family art collections were plundered by the Bolshevik government. It could also force western countries to widen the Washington Declaration of 1988, which required its 44 signatories to search for art plundered by the Nazis, and return it to the heirs of the original owners.