Appeals court to DIA: Hold onto disputed Van Gogh painting, despite end of exhibit
The ongoing court battle over Michigan’s most talked-about painting continued Wednesday when a federal appeals panel ordered the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) not to move a borrowed Vincent van Gogh artwork until a court battle over its ownership is concluded.
“The Novel Reader,” an 1888 work by the Dutch Post-Impressionist icon, has been locked in a hotly contested ownership dispute for weeks as Brazilian art collector Gustavo Soter relentlessly claims to be its rightful owner, as opposed to a private, unnamed collector in São Paulo, Brazil, who lent the piece to the museum’s “Van Gogh in America” exhibition.
Last week, U.S. District Court Judge George Caram Steeh in Detroit dismissed the lawsuit filed on Soter's behalf by his company, Brokerarte Capital Partners LLC, which appealed the dismissal to the U.S. 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.
"Van Gogh in America" opened in October 2022 and closed Sunday. More than 200,000 art lovers visited the show, which commemorated a century since the DIA became the first American museum to purchase a Van Gogh artwork in 1922. The unprecedented assemblage of 74 Van Gogh pieces from more than 50 international sources, including Amsterdam's official Van Gogh Museum, drew visitors from around the world.
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"The Novel Reader," lent from a private collection in São Paulo, Brazil, became the subject of international intrigue when Soter alleged that the piece had been stolen from him after a purchase in 2017, when he claims a third party "absconded" with the piece. Soter says he hunted for the painting for nearly six years before learning it was temporarily hanging at the DIA.
He filed the suit demanding that the DIA return the painting to him instead of the source that lent it to the museum, but Steeh found that the Immunity from Seizure Act “prohibits the court from issuing an injunction or entering any other order that would deprive the defendant of custody or control of the painting.”
The DIA said it applied for and was granted State Department protection under the law, which its attorneys say is critical for museums assembling international exhibitions.
The DIA also noted that the painting has not been reported anywhere as stolen or missing despite Soter’s claim that he purchased it for $3.7 million in 2017. He now estimates “The Novel Reader” to be worth more than $5 million.
“Because the Court cannot grant the ultimate relief sought by the plaintiff, the lawsuit will be dismissed,” Steeh wrote in an 11-page opinion last Friday. A motion for a temporary restraining order and possession also was denied. Steeh had previously, temporarily barred the museum from moving the painting, which led to it posting a guard beside it as visitors flocked through the exhibition in its final days.
The DIA, which is closed until Friday, Jan. 27 to allow the staff time to rest and recover from the intense crowd demands of the exhibition, responded Thursday to the new court order with a statement:
“The DIA will fully comply with the order from the U.S. Court of Appeals regarding the custody of The Novel Reader and will be responding on January 30 to the plaintiff’s recent pleading. The DIA will have no further comment prior to a ruling by the Court.”
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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: DIA again ordered to hold Van Gogh painting amid ownership battle