Yale Univ. v. Konowaloff, No. 3:09CV466, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 36601 (D. Conn. Mar. 20, 2014) [click for opinion]

Defendant’s great-grandfather was an art collector in Russia during the early 20th century. When the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917, they established the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (“RSFSR”). After the revolution, the United States broke off formal diplomatic relations; however, the United States did recognize the RSFSR as the de factogovernment of Russian. Later, in 1922, the RSFSR became the Soviet Union upon merging with three other republic states. In 1933, the United States formally recognized the Soviet Union as Russia’s government.

Immediately after the 1917 revolution, private property was abolished in Russia. Later, in 1918, the RSFSR issued a decree that declared the art collection of Defendant’s great-grandfather, Ivan Morozov, to be state property. Vincent van Gogh’s The Night Café was among the art seized from Morozov. The Night Café was eventually sold to art collector Stephen Clark, who willed the painting to Yale University. Yale has been in possession of the painting since Clark’s death in 1960.

In March of 2008, Konowaloff wrote a letter to Yale enquiring about Yale’s ownership of the painting. Yale then filed suit in the District Court for the District of Connecticut to quiet title, for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief against Konowaloff. Konowaloff filed several counterclaims seeking injunctive relief, declaratory relief, replevin, and money damages.

Yale filed a motion for summary judgment on all of Konowaloff’s counterclaims, which the court granted based on the act of state doctrine. The act of state doctrine is intended to prevent the judicial branch from engaging in analysis of or passing on the validity of foreign acts of state. The Supreme Court has held that the act of state doctrine retroactively applies and validates all prior actions of a government when a government which originates in revolution or revolt is recognized by the political department of the United States as the de jure government of the country.

This was not the first time Konowaloff’s arguments for possession of one of his great-grandfather’s paintings was rebuffed by application of the act of state doctrine. In fact, Konowaloff sued the Metropolitan Museum of Art on identical claims relating to a different painting. In that case, the Second Circuit held that U.S. courts “will not examine the validity of a taking of property within its own territory by a foreign sovereign government, extant and recognized by this country at the time of suit.” In granting Yale’s motion, the court found the Second Circuit’s decision was directly on point.

Konowaloff argued that the Second Circuit decision was not applicable because it had been decided on a motion to dismiss, and that evaluating the act of state doctrine as it applied to Konowaloff’s claims against Yale involved factual determinations that could not be made on a motion for summary judgment. The court found these arguments unpersuasive: the mere existence of an alleged factual dispute will not defeat a summary judgment motion in the absence of a dispute regarding a material fact. The act of state doctrine thus barred Konowaloff’s counterclaims.