Today comes news that Pierre Konowaloff, grandson of the Russian industrialist Ivan Morozov, who was forced to cede his ownership of Vincent van Gogh's The Night Cafe to the Soviet government in 1918, has sued Yale University in an effort to reclaim this iconic picture.
Last March, Yale pre-emptively sued Konowaloff in an effort to assert its unassailable rights to the iconic work, while also launching a publicity campaign in media outlets from Fox News to its own alumni magazine to stamp its footprint permanently on van Gogh’s lurid scene of debauchery and desperation. Yale’s arguments in its own suit were a grab bag of special pleading, which included the claims that Morozov’s heirs ignored an alleged three-year limit on bringing an action; that Soviet nationalization, after 90 years, had become a "fait accompli" (although the fact that the Soviet Union no longer exists might be an effective counter-argument); that the sale of Night Cafe by a New York Gallery in 1933 was legitimate; and that Yale had no reason to doubt the intentions of legendary collector Stephen Clark when he donated Night Cafe to Yale in 1961.
Within the woof and warp of its claims to Night Cafe, Yale finds itself in the position of the virgin who argues that she has been wrongfully defiled because she simultaneously knew nothing about the sex act and yet enjoyed it too much. Is Yale the recumbent recipient of historical accident and thus the accidental recipient of a great picture or the willing custodian of all the art excellence it can survey and then plunder?
Of course, the answer is both, as Yale seeks to blanket jurisprudence with the perfection of its own self-regard and thus the right to ignore history and retain its possessions. In this worldview, a great despotic empire, the Soviet Union, can topple in less than a century and the vicissitudes of that same century leave a relatively small institution like Yale with a priceless bauble in its lap. One looks forward to the judge who would hoist this institution on its own petard and restore a picture, serially stolen throughout the 20th century, to the family who took a chance on it in the first place. Don’t hold your breath and, if you want that Jasper Johns in your living room to be enjoyed by your great-grandchildren, don’t be giving it to Yale.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).