Page last updated at 15:41 GMT, Thursday, 26 March 2009

Yale fight over Van Gogh painting

Vincent Van Gogh's The Night Cafe
Van Gogh's The Night Cafe was painted at the end of the nineteenth century

Yale University is taking legal action in a bid to keep one of Vincent Van Gogh's most famous works.

It has gone to court in the US to assert ownership rights over The Night Cafe and prevent a descendant of the original owner claiming the canvas.

Pierre Konowaloff, who lives in France, claims to be the great-grandson of Russian industrialist Ivan Morozov, who owned the painting in 1918.

The Night Cafe, painted in 1888, is one of Van Gogh's most well-known works.

It has been in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery since it was donated in 1961 by Stephen Carlton Clark - a Yale alumnus who served as chairman of the Museum of Modern Arts board, and who bought the painting in the 1930s.

Remove cloud

The university said it wanted to remove any cloud over the painting's ownership.

According to legal papers filed in Connecticut, Mr Konowaloff's lawyer asserted last year that his client owned the 1888 painting and sent a draft complaint of a federal legal action.

Mr Konowaloff has also publicly said he wants the painting transferred to the Russian state and to receive personal financial compensation, according to the papers.

He says his great-grandfather's property was nationalised during the Communist revolution, which is why the painting did not remain in the family.

Russia's nationalisation of property, while sharply at odds with US values, did not violate international laws, Yale said in its legal document.

"It was accepted at the time, as it is now, that sales by the Soviet government were valid, as were later acquisitions of the paintings," it contested.

"Yale had no reason to question the legitimacy of Mr Clark's generous bequest in 1961. Nor does it today.

"In the more than 90 years since the painting was nationalised, the more than 70 years since the Soviet government sold the painting and the almost 50 years since Clark bequeathed it to Yale, witnesses have died and documentary evidence has been lost," it said.

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