A Parisian engineer is suing New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to recover a Paul Cezanne painting that he says the Bolsheviks stole from his great-grandfather during the Russian Revolution. The suit was filed Tuesday in U.S District Court.
The painting is valued at $50 million to $70 million, said Washington lawyer Allan Gerson, who represents the plaintiff, Pierre Konowaloff. A New York dealer in Impressionist art, who didn’t want to be identified, said that in today’s market, it could sell for as much as $100 million.
“Madame Cezanne in the Conservatory,” painted in 1891, was a 1960 bequest of Stephen C. Clark, an heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune, according to the museum’s website. In his complaint, Konowaloff claims that Clark bought the dour portrait of the artist’s wife in May 1933 “in violation of Russian law and U.S. policy” because it was months before the U.S. diplomatically recognized Soviet Russia.
The Met said in a statement that it has been open about the provenance and will fight the suit.
“The Museum firmly believes it has good title to the painting and that this lawsuit is totally without merit,” the Met said.
Konowaloff’s great-grandfather was Ivan Morozov, a Russian textile merchant who collected modern art and bought the Cezanne in 1911, according to the suit. Morozov’s collection was seized on Lenin’s orders in 1918 and Morozov’s home was converted into a state museum.
Clark “employed a Soviet laundering operation” to get the painting and directed the New York gallery Knoedler to secretly buy it for him, according to the complaint.
Frank Del Deo, the gallery’s current president, didn’t return a call for comment.
Konowaloff claims he became the official heir to the Morozov collection in 2002, when his father died. He eventually learned that Clark bought the artwork and bequeathed it to the museum. He demanded its return, to no avail.
Last year, Yale University sued Konowaloff to “quiet its good title” to Vincent van Gogh’s “The Night Cafe,” it said in its suit. Like the Cezanne, the Van Gogh was bequeathed by Clark, according to the suit.
Yale said in its pending complaint that Konowaloff’s argument implies that “American courts should try to undo the entire program of property reform undertaken by the Russian government in the early part of the 20th century, invalidating the transfers of title of Russian citizens’ property that Russia effectuated within its own borders.”
The new case is Konowaloff v. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 10-CV-9126, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).