2nd Circuit Rules for the Met in a Bolshevik-era restitution suit

“Portrait of Madame Cezanne”, Pierre Cezanne (1891)

Pierre Konowaloff has lost a bid to secure the return of some art confiscated nearly a century ago. Konowaloff is the successor in interest of a Russian art collector who had his art collection confiscated in the 1917 Russian revolution. The 2nd Circuit held the claim is barred by the act of state doctrine, upholding a 2011 dismissal of the claim in the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York. In its simplest form, the doctrine protects the U.S. Executives dealings with foreign nations by requiring claimants like Konowaloff to seek a remedy with the state doing the expropriation. The doctrine states that separation of powers requires that federal courts not challenge the validity of decisions by recognized foreign sovereign governments.

In 1911, Ivan Morozov purchased the work. Morozov was a Russian art collector, and lost this work and another Van Gogh currently held by Yale University after the Bolshevik seizures during the Russian revolution. Konowaloff is the great-grandson of Morozov. The Soviet Union in 1933 needed funds and decided to deaccession (if I can use that term in this context) the painting. The paintings were purchased by Stephen Clark, an American who bequeathed the C├ęzanne to the MET and the Van Gogh to Yale University. Yale decided to initiate a declaratory suit, getting ahead of the lawsuit, and is still ongoing.

So the Bolshevik-era claim has been extinguished. One wonders though if the way courts treat the act of state doctrine in this context may be different from the ways it might treat foreign ownership declarations of other works of art. That’s a question I don’t have the answer to. It may be there are peculiar aspects of the doctrine. But on balance this seems like nations are given the benefit of the doctrine when it comes to situations where museums have long possessed these objects, but they aren’t given the same advantages in other repatriation cases. That may be because of problems baked-in to the doctrine, or not. I’m not aware of any direct act of state doctrine argument which bends for claimant-nations, it seems primarily to assist current museums attempting to fend off suits arising from Nazi-era takings.

  1. Philip Boroff, Met Museum Sued Over Cezanne Painting Stolen by Bolsheviks From Collector, Bloomberg, December 8, 2010.
  2. Konowaloff v. Metropolitan Musem of Art 11-4338-cv (2nd Cir. 2012)
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