Met Museum Is Rightful Owner Of Cezanne Portrait, Court Decides

Paul Cezanne, Portrait of Madame Cezanne, 1891, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Paul Cezanne, Portrait of Madame Cezanne, 1891, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is the rightful owner of Paul Cezanne’s 1891 Portrait of Madame Cezanne and does not have to turn the painting over to the heir of its original owner, the District Court in Manhattan found late last week.

Thursday’s decision granted the Met’s motion to dismiss the suit brought by Pierre Konowaloff, who had alleged that the Cezanne was taken “by force and without compensation” by the Bolsheviks in 1918 from his great-grandfather, Ivan Morozov, and that the Soviet Union had then illegally and secretly sold it in 1933 to art collector Stephen C. Clark.  Clark, a trustee of the Met, bequeathed the painting to the museum in 1960.

The Court found that Mr. Konowaloff’s claim would require it to question the validity of the Soviet Union’s taking Cezanne’s portrait of his wife as part of its nationalization of private property after the Russian Revolution, which the Court, under longstanding precedent of the “act of state” doctrine, refused to do.  Under that doctrine, the acts of a sovereign government are legitimate, official acts.

“The act of state that I decline to question here is the act of expropriating the painting from Morozov,” the Court wrote, and therefore “I accept that the Soviet government took ownership of the painting in 1918 through an official act of state . . .  Konowaloff lacks any ownership stake in the painting.”

On the same grounds, Mr. Konowaloff also claims to be the rightful owner of Vincent Van Gogh’s well-known 1888 painting Night Café, which Clark gave to Yale.  The university has moved for summary judgment, also invoking the act of state doctrine, in the District Court in Connecticut.

Before the Met decision came down, this reporter spoke to Phil Brown, one of the attorneys representing Mr. Konowaloff in both cases.  Mr. Brown, who is with the firm Adler, Pollock & Sheehan, acknowledged that, given the legal precedent, his client might be perceived as “tilting at windmills.”

“No judge is going to award Konowaloff judgment lightly,” he said.