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Noah Feldman

How Soviets Got Away With Stealing a Van Gogh

Or, why the courts treat Nazi art theft differently.
A win for Yale.

A win for Yale.

Source: Photo12/UIG via Getty Images

Vincent van Gogh’s “The Night Cafe” will stay at the Yale University Art Gallery, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled this week, even though the Bolsheviks stole it from a private collector in 1918. The court said it has no authority to consider the validity of a foreign government’s act confiscating private property.

So how come confiscated Nazi art, like the Gustav Klimt painting in the film “Woman in Gold,” can end up returned to its rightful heirs, while Soviet-confiscated art can’t? The legal answer turns out to be surprisingly convoluted. In essence, it’s this: The Nazis are different.