[intro]The battle over Yale’s Van Gogh painting, Night Café, raises unexpected questions.[/intro]
Martin Gayford traces the history of Van Gogh’s Night Café on Bloomberg from its 1908 purchase by a Russian textile magnate, Ivan Mozorov, through the Soviet expropriation of the art to its eventual hard currency sale by the Russian government to Stephen Clark, the man who donated it to Yale University.
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.
In our own day we could add another twist to this “who owns it” argument. The Night Cafe offers an interesting thought experiment for the anti-deaccessionists like Christopher Knight who recently compared the City of Long Beach to Joseph Stalin for contemplating a sale of artwork. But Knight and his “art is held in trust for the public” cohorts may not realize that their stance echoes the Soviet rationale for expropriating the art in the first place. Under that logic, shouldn’t the Yale case be settled in favor of the Hermitage museum (which is not involved in the case?)
After all, when Stalin deaccessioned the art, he violated AAMD guidelines and used the money for operating expenses.
Yale Fight for Night Cafe May Open More Battles (Bloomberg)