For three nights in early September 1888, Vincent van Gogh stayed up painting in a 24-hour drinking establishment a short distance from his house in Arles, France.
The sight of him doing so, he wrote to his brother, caused great joy (read great hilarity) to the streetwalkers and insomniac imbibers who frequented the place.
Those tipsy bystanders would no doubt be amazed -- and perhaps amused -- to discover that 121 years later the picture is posing an intricate question in international law. It’s the subject of a suit and countersuit in U.S. courts between the descendant of a former owner and Yale University Art Gallery.
In the meantime, Van Gogh’s picture, “The Night Cafe,” has risen from being an almost valueless object -- even, in moments of despondency, in the eyes of the artist himself -- to become one of the world’s best known and hence potentially most expensive pictures. Its history is tangled, illustrating the complexity of the question “Who really owns this work of art?”
By 1908, the painting was a desirable item on the Parisian art market. There it was bought by Ivan Morozov (1871-1921), a Russian textile tycoon and discerning collector of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art.
By the outbreak of World War I, he, his brother Mikhail and his contemporary Sergei Shchukin owned two of the finest ensembles of early modernist painting in existence. After the 1917 Revolution, both collections were nationalized -- or seized, the choice of word depends on your point of view -- by the new Bolshevik government.
In 1918, Morozov’s house became the “Second Museum of Modern Western Art” (Shchukin’s mansion was the “First Museum”). Morozov was appointed assistant curator of his own ex-possessions. He left Russia in 1919. Subsequently, the Shchukin and Morozov collections became the core of the modernist holdings of the Hermitage and Pushkin museums (without them there wouldn’t be much).
In the 1930s, decadent western modernism wasn’t much valued in the USSR (Gauguin and Van Gogh were shown in 1932 at the Hermitage as “art of the rotting capitalist era”). “The Night Cafe” was sold under a Soviet program aimed at disposing of art treasures to raise funds. It was bought on the New York art market by Stephen Carlton Clark (1882-1960), an avid collector who, like Morozov, had inherited great wealth. He bequeathed it to his old university, Yale, where it has been on display for almost 50 years.
Morozov’s great-grandson Pierre Konowaloff has filed a suit against Yale, and the university has filed one to assert its valid title to the picture.
So whose is it? That turns on the legitimacy of the Bolshevik government and its acts: a matter for international lawyers. Though, I might add, if the world’s museums were to disgorge all the works that have in the past been stolen by armies or expropriated by revolutionary regimes there are going to be an awful lot of gaps. The National Gallery in London and the Hermitage both have works looted by Napoleonic troops; the Louvre and Prado are full of works from the collection of Charles I, sold off by Cromwell’s government. And so on, and on.
About a fortnight after he painted “The Night Cafe,” Van Gogh wrote, “It is not any easier, I am convinced, to make a good painting than to find a diamond or a pearl.” And, like famous gems, great pictures are sometimes fought over.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Bloomberg News and author of “The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles.” The opinions expressed are his own.)http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601088&sid=aaIdNne452SE