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Konowaloff v. Met Decision — Met can keep Cezanne

On December 18, 2012, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York affirmed the 2011 decision dismissing lawsuit of Pierre Konowaloff against the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the ownership of Paul Cezanne’s painting “Madame Cezanne in the Conservatory” on the basis of the act of state doctrine. The painting was once in Konowaloff’s family, part of the renowned collection of Ivan Morozov. Konowaloff sought action against the Met for its acquisition, possession, display and retention of a painting confiscated by the Soviet Government from Konowaloff’s great-grandfather in 1918.

The latest decision came down one day short of the 96th anniversary of the Bolsheviks’ decree to confiscate art collection of Ivan Morozov, including the painting in dispute. It was on December 19, 1918 that the collection was declared state property. Hundreds of nationalized treasures were subsequently sold to the West. This particular painting was acquired by Stephen C. Clark, an American collector, in 1933. Clark bequeathed it to the Met. The story of the nationalization and sale of the Russian art treasures is well-researched and documented. See for example, Treasure into Tractors: The Selling of Russia’s Cultural Heritage, 1918-1938, with a chapter by I. Tarsis on Book dealers, collectors and libraries.

Konowaloff had a number of interesting theories as to why this particular painting, one of the hundreds taken from Morozov, should be returned to him now. However, the U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin found that legal doctrine (again) precluded “U.S. courts from inquiring into the validity of decisions by recognized foreign sovereign governments within their own territory.” Given that title passed to the government, the Court of Appeals agreed that Konowaloff did not have legal standing to complain about the sale of this Cezanne or his family’s treatment after nationalization

A museum spokesman was quoted as saying in a statement “We are gratified that the court has confirmed our faith in the ownership history of this work of art, and pleased that the Met can continue to share this beautiful picture with its millions of visitors.”

Attorneys involved in the Konowaloff case: for Konowaloff — James Tyrrell, Patton Boggs; for the Met — David Bowker, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr.

Cases: Konowaloff v. Metro. Museum of Art, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 25836 (2d Cir. N.Y. Dec. 18, 2012) aff’ing Konowaloff v. Metro. Museum of Art, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 107262 (S.D.N.Y., Sept. 22, 2011)

Source: Reuters.

While it is hard to accept that personal property of Russian citizens nationalized by the Soviet Government following the 1917 Revolution will not be returned to their heirs, there is consistency across decades by the Western Governments in honoring the Soviet decrees. During the 2009 Annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, a panel entitled “Russian Laws and Cultural Property: Exploring Legal Problems Arising from Appropriations, Sales, and Restitution Claims in the 20th Century” included a paper about “Russian Emigre Legal Reaction to the 1930s Sales” which discussed futile legal cases in France, Germany and England brought by families of those whose property was taken by the Bolsheviks. Nothing has changed in the last eighty years. For details see,  Lawrence M. Kaye, Art Loans and Immunity from Seizure in the United States and the United Kingdom, International Journal of Cultural Property, 17, pp 335-359 (2010).