Detroit – A federal judge in Detroit on Friday dismissed a lawsuit seeking to seize a painting by Vincent van Gogh allegedly stolen from the Detroit Institute of Arts and give the work to its alleged owner in Brazil.
U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh ruled the DIA did not have to hand over ‘Liseuse De Romans’, also known as ‘The Novel Reader’ or ‘The Reading Lady’, which is temporarily on display in an exhibit which ends on Sunday. The judge ruled that the artwork was protected by federal law granting immunity to foreign artwork exhibited in the United States.
DIA attorneys argued that the artwork could not be touched because it is protected by a federal law called the Immunity from Seizure Act granting immunity to foreign artwork exhibited in the United States.
“The painting is exempt from seizure under the statute, which prohibits the court from issuing an injunction or making any other order that would deprive the defendant of custody or control of the painting,” Steeh wrote in an 11-page decision. “Because the court cannot grant the ultimate relief requested by the plaintiff, the lawsuit will be dismissed.”
The alleged owner, Brazilian art collector Gustavo Soter and his art brokerage firm, Brokerarte Capital Partners LLC, said the painting was stolen and had been missing for almost six years until it was recently discovered on display at the DIA as part of the museum’s “Van Gogh Exhibition in America”.
Steeh had nine days earlier ordered that the painting not be removed or hidden, and the DIA posted a security guard near Van Gogh’s work in recent days.
“DIA Welcomes Court’s Decision Applying Federal Immunity From Seizure Act, Dismissing Litigation Regarding ‘The Novel Reader,’ and Noting There Was No Allegation of DIA Wrongdoing “, according to a statement from the museum on Friday. “The museum looks forward to welcoming visitors from around the world for the final weekend of the ‘Van Gogh in America’ exhibition.
The decision ends a case over a painting that helped draw large crowds to a rare oil painting by the Dutch Post-Impressionist master and emphasizes the sharing of culturally significant works of art between countries, even those whose provenance is checkerboard. Van Gogh created the painting in 1888, and today it is worth more than $5 million.
During a hearing on Thursday, Steeh urged the DIA and Soter to negotiate a settlement. But the exhibition due to end this weekend, Steeh made its decision late Friday afternoon.
In the lawsuit, Soter attached a bill of sale for the painting for $3.7 million which he purchased on May 3, 2017, but he never took possession of the painting. After purchase, he arranged for it to be stored in Brazil by a third party. He eventually lost contact with the third party and was unaware of the painting’s location until it came into the possession of the DIA as part of the “Van Gogh in America” exhibit.
The painting was an investment, and Soter eventually planned to sell the artwork.
“The artwork itself, being recognizable, my client assumed it resurfaced, and it did,” Soter’s attorney Aaron Phelps previously said.
“My client would like the painting back before it disappears again,” Phelps told the judge on Thursday.
During Thursday’s hearing, Phelps said he was contacted on Wednesday by a New York attorney who claimed to be representing an unidentified client who also claims to own the Van Gogh painting. This client was not identified in court.
In court Thursday, DIA attorney Andrew Pauwels faulted Soter’s company for not reporting the artwork as stolen or notifying the FBI.
“He doesn’t explain why he hasn’t done anything for the past five years to reclaim” the painting, Pauwels told the judge.
During the hearing, Soter’s attorneys said the law does not protect thieves or stolen artwork and criticized Detroit museum attorneys for continuing to hide the identity of the art collector from the public. art that had loaned Van Gogh’s painting to the DIA. A panel accompanying the painting indicates that it comes from a private collection in São Paulo.
The DIA did not release any further information about the property, and its attorney, Pauwels, declined to comment when approached by reporters on Thursday.
Soter did not allege misconduct or wrongdoing on the part of the DIA, but requested that the DIA be ordered to hold the painting pending resolution of the lawsuit, or deliver the painting to the plaintiff in as the legitimate owner, pending a final judgment.
But Steeh sided with the DIA, citing the Seizure Immunity Act, which “serves the important national interest of contributing to the educational and cultural development of the people of the United States.” It only prohibits non-owners from seizing artwork from owners, Soter’s attorney told the judge.
“The purpose of the law is not to protect the owner of the object insofar as it is to encourage the display in the United States of objects of cultural significance from abroad,” said writes the judge. “Here, the lender was in possession of the painting and the defendant exercised due diligence to determine that the painting had not been reported as lost or stolen.”
In developing the “Van Gogh in America” exhibition, the DIA entered into agreements to obtain loans of works of art from foreign collectors and museums. On May 12, the DIA filed its request that the painting, among other artworks, be elusive, the judge said in his ruling.
“In addition, the Director of the United States Information Agency has determined that each of the requirements of the law has been met,” Steeh concluded.
The DIA’s Van Gogh exhibit opened in October and celebrates its status as the first public museum in the United States to purchase a Van Gogh painting, a self-portrait created in 1887. The exhibit ends Sunday and is sold out.
The exhibition includes 74 paintings by Van Gogh and is considered one of the greatest works by Van Gogh in America in the 21st century. Authentic Van Gogh pieces are on loan from approximately 60 museums and collections around the world, including The Bedroom at the Chicago Institute of Art; “Van Gogh’s Chair” from the National Gallery in London; and “Starry Night (Starry Night Over the Rhone)” from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.