A Paul Cézanne painting in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, valued at as much as $100 million, is alleged to have been stolen from its original owner in 1918 during the Russian Revolution, according to a lawsuit filed in Manhattan federal court.
The suit centers on the provenance of Cézanne’s 1891 work “Madame Cézanne in the Conservatory,” which was bequeathed to the museum in 1960 by an art collector.
Pierre Konowaloff, who says he is the great-grandson of the original owner, says he is the rightful owner of the painting, according to the lawsuit. The suit seeks recovery of the painting, as well as “monetary damages in connection with wrongful acquisition, possession, display and retention of the Painting,” the Wall Street Journal reported.
The Met said in a statement that it believes it has good title to the painting and that it intends to defend the lawsuit vigorously.
According to the lawsuit, the collector who bequeathed the painting to the Met “almost certainly” knew that an illegal confiscation had wrested it from its original owner, Russian industrialist Ivan Morozov, during the Bolshevik takeover.
The suit also accuses the museum of failing to properly investigate the provenance of the work during its acquisitions process. Konowaloff says he is Morozov’s great-grandson, the Journal reported.
Allan Gerson, an attorney for Konowaloff, said his client learned of the Cézanne’s location about four years ago, when he was looking at his great-grandfather’s collection. After learning the work was at the Met, Konowaloff, who lives in France, last year asked the museum to look into the issue. Gerson said his client never got a response.
The work in question was bequeathed by an art collector named Stephen Clark, a former trustee of both the Met and the Museum of Modern Art, in 1960.
Citing independent appraisals, Gerson estimated the painting’s value at between $50 million and $70 million. But a longtime dealer of Impressionist and Old Master paintings, Richard L. Feigen, said the work might be worth more than $100 million, according to the Journal.
“There hasn’t been a Cézanne like this on the market in quite a while,” Feigen said. “They just don’t exist on the market like this.”
According to the complaint against the Met, the Cézanne painting changed hands several times prior to Clark’s purchase of the work in 1933.
Looted by the Bolsheviks from Morozov, according to the complaint, it was then turned over to the Matthiesen Gallery in Berlin in an effort to conceal it from authorities, who might have otherwise flagged the stolen artwork, according to the Journal.
Clark purchased the Cézanne through New York’s Knoedler & Co. gallery, according to Konowaloff’s suit, which also claims that Clark directed Knoedler to “secretly purchase the painting for him,” because he likely knew of the work’s unlawful confiscation during the chaos of the Russian Revolution.
The ownership history listed for the Cézanne on the museum’s website says the artist sold the work, along with another of his paintings, to Morozov in 1911. The work was acquired by Moscow’s Museum of Modern Western Art in 1918, according to the Met’s information, and sold through Knoedler to Clark in 1933.