NEW HAVEN, Connecticut (AFP) — A painting Vincent van Gogh dismissed as one of his "ugliest" is today the subject of a high-stakes ownership battle between Yale University and a heir to a Russian art collector.
The French Impressionist artist painted "Night Cafe" to pay his landlord, calling it "one of the ugliest I have done" in a letter to his brother Theo in 1888.
Today, van Gogh works fetch fortunes at auction and "Night Cafe," which depicts a cafe bathed in yellow-green light, is not only world famous, but the subject of an international legal tussle.
Parisian Pierre Konowaloff, great-grandson of Russian industrialist and art collector Ivan Morozov, is challenging in a US federal court widely accepted norms that recognize the results of Soviet-era nationalization, at least when it comes to cultural items.
Morozov's real estate, textile factory and art collection were seized by Lenin in 1918. Although the Bolsheviks are long gone, their confiscation of priceless art -- part of far wider repression against private property owners -- still stands.
In contrast, successful challenges have been made to ownership of treasures looted by the Nazis during World War II and passed on to other owners since.
Allan Gerson, an attorney known for pushing the boundaries of international law, wants to change that, saying that "Night Cafe" was acquired illegally and describing Lenin's "looting" as no different than that of the Nazis'.
"They (Yale) have to tell the difference. What is the difference? I contend there is no difference," Gerson told AFP.
In court papers filed last week, he said the "confiscation of cultural property was prohibited under prevailing customary and conventional international law."
Yale acquired the painting in 1961 as a posthumous gift from the American art collector and Yale graduate Stephen Clark.
Clark bought the painting around 1933 with the help of the Knoedler Gallery in New York City and the Matthiesen Gallery in Berlin from a sale by Stalin of Soviet-owned art.
Yale filed court papers in March asking a judge to declare it the owner of the painting in response to Konowaloff's challenge.
"The university believes it is the rightful owner and that the outcome of its filing will confirm that," Yale spokesman Tom Conroy said.
The Soviet nationalization of property, though "sharply at odds" with American values, was legal, Yale attorney Jonathan Freiman wrote in his petition to the court.
"Paintings that were nationalized by the Soviet government figure prominently in the collections of premier institutions throughout the world, including leading museums in Russia and the United States," Freiman wrote.
"It was accepted at the time, as it is now, that the sales by the Soviet government were valid, as were later acquisitions of the paintings. Yale had no reason to question the legitimacy" of the bequest, the court documents said.
In an interview with AFP, Freiman said the challenge was "not a viable legal claim" and that its success would set a dangerous precedent.
"There are many people who bought art from Russia in the 1930s, both individuals and museums," he said. A successful suit would "completely unsettle museums and private collections."
Patty Gerstenblith, a law professor and director of DePaul College of Law's program in Cultural Heritage Law, said the challenge faces an uphill battle.
"Property nationalized during the Soviet Bolshevik revolution generally has been viewed as belonging to the Soviet Union," she said.
"Cases that seem to fit the fact pattern here have not succeeded in the past."
But both Konowaloff and Gerson are likely to prove determined fighters.
A former senior lawyer with the State Department and Justice Department, Gerson has advocated private lawsuits against governments regardless of the impact on foreign policy.
He was involved in suing Libya for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland that killed 270 people in 1988 and was settled by Libya for 2.7 billion dollars in 2003 in a deal linked to lifting trade sanctions against the country.
He currently represents relatives of 9/11 victims in federal court in New York who are suing Saudi Arabia for allegedly funding terrorism.
Konowaloff did not respond to email and telephone requests for an interview.
He is well known for an attempt two years ago to recover other artworks that belonged to his great-grandfather as they were being sent to a major exhibition in London.
The show was delayed at the request of Moscow until Britain passed legislation protecting Russia's ownership of the works.