Yale, Van Gogh, Lenin and the Nationalization of Art

At first Chairman Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized private land and “redistributed” it to the Russian peasants. They nationalized the banks and industry. Personal property was confiscated for the state, including the art collections of the Russian industrialists.

General Secretary of the Communist Party Josef Stalin sold off some of the “nationalized” art treasures to raise money to build the Soviet Union’s faltering economy. Much of the stolen art was sold in the United States.

Night Café (1888) by Vincent van Gogh

Night Café (1888) by Vincent van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh’s Night Café had belonged to industrialist Ivan Morozov, until it was seized by the Communists, along with his textile factory, land and art collection in 1918. In 1933 or 1934, it was purchased through a New York Gallery by an art collector named Stephen Carlton Clark.

The son of the founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, Mr. Clark founded the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. He was Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Museum of Modern Art from 1939 to 1946. A Yale alumnus, Mr. Clark bequeathed the painting to Yale University upon his death. It has been in the Yale collection since 1961.

Yale is now being sued for return of the painting and monetary damages by Pierre Konowaloff, the great-grandson of the Russian industrialist Ivan Morozov. Mr. Konowaloff’s attorney, Allan Gerson, makes the claim that the painting was acquired illegally, comparing the “looting” of art by Chairman Lenin to the looting of art done by Nazis.

There have been successful legal challenges to ownership rights in the case of art stolen by the Nazis. However, as Yale attorney Jonathan Freiman writes in papers filed with the court, although at odds with American values, “it was accepted at the time, as it is now, that the sales by the Soviet government were valid, as were later acquisitions of the paintings. Yale had no reason to question the legitimacy” of the bequest.

“The university believes it is the rightful owner and that the outcome of its filing will confirm that,” said Yale spokesman.

See Also:
Russian heir fights Yale over van Gogh painting [AFP; May 28, 2009]
Attorney: Yale turned blind eye when acquiring art [AP; June 3, 2009]