Last month, the NY Times astonishingly called for the return to Egypt of Nefertiti and the Rosetta Stone, while praising the Metropolitan Museum for its return to Egypt of some minor antiquities.
But the Times has been surprisingly silent, so far, on the latest news development related to restitution and the Met: A descendant of Ivan Morozov, a celebrated Russian collector whose trove of great Impressionist and modern masterpieces was seized by the Bolsheviks in the early 20th century, has called for the return of two of his ancestor’s works that found their way to the United States. Most of Morozov’s collection, along with that of fellow Russian textile merchant Sergei Shchukin, resides in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, and the Pushkin Museum, Moscow.
Last week, Pierre Konowaloff, who says he is Morozov’s great-grandson and sole living heir, filed a 15-page complaint against the Metropolitan Museum in U.S. District Court for Cézanne‘s “Madame Cézanne in the Conservatory.” Last year, he had filed a similar suit for van Gogh‘s “The Night Café” at the Yale University Art Gallery.
This is a case that I feel emotional about: That painting was one of my personal touchstones as a young museum habitué hopping a D train in the Bronx to savor Manhattan’s cultural riches. The suit seeks not only the painting but also cash—unspecified “actual economic damages” and “compensatory damages.”
Both the Cézanne and van Gogh came to their respective American homes from the distinguished collection of Stephen Clark, who had served as chairman of the Museum of Modern Art and trustee of the Met. The still unresolved Yale situation, which began with the university’s preemptive lawsuit last year, is described in the Yale Daily News here.
In Nazi-loot cases, such claims sometimes result in a financial settlement, the details of which sometimes are not disclosed. Konowaloff and André-Marc Delocque-Fourcaud, Shchukin’s grandson, also sought financial compensation for works from their forebears’ collections when they were displayed in a 2008 Russian loan exhibition at London’s Royal Academy.
Here’s the statement issued by the Met about Konowaloff’s claim for the Cézanne:
The Metropolitan Museum acquired the portrait of Madame Cézanne as a bequest from Stephen C. Clark in 1960. In the 50 years since, the Met has always been open about the work’s ownership and provenance, widely exhibiting and publishing both the work and its full ownership history. The Museum firmly believes it has good title to the painting and that this lawsuit is totally without merit. The Museum intends to defend this lawsuit vigorously.
It sounds like one of the defenses will be that, in light of the museum’s 50 years of open ownership, the claim is too stale. But conceptually, if not legally, this is (partly) another case of: “Where do you draw the line?” Should claims for works expropriated by the Bolsheviks at the time of the Russian Revolution be treated differently by American museums than claims for works expropriated by the Nazis before and during World War II? American museums have been receptive and responsive to Nazi-loot claims. How far back should they go to right historic wrongs?
One of Konowaloff’s lawyers, Allan Gerson, maintained in a phone conversation with me last week that Bolshevik loot should be treated no differently than Nazi loot, because “by the 20th century we had in place international laws and conventions that prohibited the seizure of cultural property without compensation.” Konowaloff, he said, is “seeking title to the painting” and financial compensation, but “the family has no desire to remove the painting from public view.”
Wait a minute! Allan Gerson? Where have we come across him before?
He was the author of Plunder Goes on Tour, a 2008 NY Times Op-Ed piece that I had criticized as lacking “a reasonable grasp of the facts.” Last week he told me that he had been engaged by Konowaloff as a direct result of his Times essay.
Konowaloff claims (in his U.S. District Court complaint) that Clark should have known that his Cézanne had been wrongfully expropriated from Morozov. Clark acquired it notwithstanding U.S. court rulings “that the Bolshevik confiscations were unlawful,” in the words of the complaint. The Met, Konowaloff alleges, acquired the work without determining whether the painting had left Russia legally. Its export, he says, was unlikely to have received the “approval of the highest authorities,” as required by Soviet law.
This seems to be trying to have it two ways: Soviet law should be disregarded when it allows expropriations of personal property, but respected when it bars important cultural property from leaving the country without government approval.
How have the Bolshevik confiscations been regarded in modern-day Russia? Let’s go to a catalogue introduction by Mikhail Piotrovsky‘s predecessor as director of the Hermitage Museum, his father Boris Piotrovsky. Below is what Boris wrote for a breathtaking exhibition that traveled the U.S. in 1975-76—Master Paintings from the Hermitage and the State Russian Museum, which appeared at four major museums and at the Knoedler gallery, New York.
Knoedler got to host this museum blockbuster thanks to the key role in arranging the show played by the gallery’s then owner, American industrialist Armand Hammer, who had close ties to Russia. (Clark had purchased the Morozov Cézanne through Knoedler.) That exhibition, which I saw in New York, included several modern masterpieces formerly owned by Morozov and Shchukin.
Boris Piotrovsky’s catalogue introduction for that show stated this:
By the eve of the October Revolution of 1917, certain important schools and periods of art, which should be included in any great museum, were either represented inadequately or not represented at all. To remedy this, major acquisitions were made after the Revolution from important private collections and noblemen’s palaces which had been nationalized. The number of works of art acquired in the post-revolutionary years was fantastic.
Gerson indicated to me that Konowaloff has no plans to go after the Russian museums’ holdings—more than 200 ex-Morozov works (along with a similar number of ex-Shchukins), according to Gerson. The legal and political hurdles for wresting them from Russia would be daunting, if not insurmountable.