MANHATTAN (CN) – The Metropolitan Museum of Art can keep a famous Cezanne painting from a collector who claimed that the Bolsheviks seized it from his great-grandfather nearly a century ago, a federal judge ruled.
Pierre Konowaloff claims to be the sole heir of Ivan Morozov, whom he described as a “wealthy Moscow textile merchant” with an extensive collection of modern art.
Morozov purportedly acquired Cezanne’s “Madame Cezanne in the Conservatory,” or “Portrait of Madame Cezanne,” about six years before the March 1917 revolution in Russia. The uprising led to the overthrow of Nicholas II and the installation of a provisional government that was briefly recognized by the U.S. government.
Months later, Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized power, and would not be recognized by the United States until 1933.
Konowaloff says that the Bolsheviks issued a Dec. 19, 1918, decree singling out Morozov’s art collection, and that of another family of “Old Believers,” self-described religious schismatics fleeing persecution.
As a result of the edict, the Bolshevik secret police looted Morozov’s home and declared it a museum, court documents state.
Morozov eventually fled with his family to England and then France, where he died in 1921.
Konowaloff, who still lives in Paris, France, says that the Bolsheviks “systematically destroyed evidence of title and origin” of confiscated his great-grandfather’s artwork and then sent their commissar of foreign trade, Leonid Krasin, to sell the pieces abroad.
Cezanne’s painting eventually fell into the possession of Stephen C. Clark, who helped to open Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Clark bequeathed “Madame Cezanne in the Conservatory” to the Met upon his death in 1960.
Konowaloff claims Clark “concealed the provenance of the painting” by hanging it in his house until he died, and did “not acknowledge the Morozov provenance until 1954.”
He sued for the painting and compensatory damages in December 2010.
U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled Thursday that his lawsuit is precluded by the Act of State Doctrine.
“I accept that the Soviet government took ownership of the painting in 1918 through an official act of state, and accordingly, the painting’s sale abroad in 1933 – whether legal or illegal, an act of party or an act of state – becomes irrelevant, as Konowaloff lacks any ownership stake in the painting,” Scheindlin wrote.
Attorneys for Konowaloff did not immediately return a call for comment.