Wiggin and Dana Partner Jonathan Freiman Wins Second Circuit Appeal in Battle Over Van Gogh Painting

October 20, 2015

Wiggin and Dana successfully represented Yale University in an appeal from Yale's trial court victory over French citizen Pierre Konowaloff, who claimed that he was the rightful owner of Vincent van Gogh's painting The Night Café, one of the world's best-known paintings. Konowaloff claimed that in 1918, the revolutionary Bolshevik government of Russia unlawfully expropriated the painting from his great-grandfather. The Soviet Union later sold the painting to a prominent New York art collector, who left it to Yale at his death in 1960. Konowaloff demanded that Yale give him the painting, or pay him its value, which he estimated at $150 million.

As a result of the victory, Yale retains title to The Night Café, which remains on display and open to the public at the Yale University Art Gallery.

The district court found that the "act of state" doctrine precluded Konowaloff's claims. The doctrine generally requires U.S. courts to presume the validity and legality of a foreign state's action with regard to its own nationals within its own borders. After last week's oral argument, in which Wiggin and Dana's Jonathan Freiman squared off against Konowaloff counsel Alan Gerson (who had previously successfully represented the victims of Pan Am Flight 103/Lockerbie bombing), the Second Circuit issued a brief decision, available here, affirming the district court in all respects.

Mr. Freiman is Chair of the Appellate and Complex Legal Issues practice group at Wiggin and Dana LLP. Associate Benjamin Daniels also worked on the appeal, and partner Tahlia Townsend worked with Mr. Freiman on the case in the district court.