Skip to main content

DIA art fight will 'Gogh' on in federal appeals court, lawyer says

Detroit — The purported owner of a Vincent van Gogh painting that was missing for six years until being found hanging on a wall at the Detroit Institute of Arts will appeal the dismissal of a lawsuit that sought to reclaim the rare artwork.

Aaron Phelps, a lawyer for Brazilian art collector Gustavo Soter and his art brokerage company, Brokerarte Capital Partners LLC, filed a notice of appeal Monday in federal court. The appeal is expected to be filed later with the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

The filing came three days after U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh dismissed their lawsuit, saying the DIA did not have to hand over "Liseuse De Romans," also known as "The Novel Reader" or "The Reading Lady," which is temporarily displaying in an exhibition that ended Sunday. The judge ruled the artwork is protected by a federal law granting immunity to foreign artwork on display in the United States.

The notice is the latest development involving an 1888 oil painting that has helped to draw large crowds and a focus on the sharing between countries of culturally significant artwork, even one with a checkered provenance. Van Gogh created the painting in 1888, and it's worth more than $5 million today.

In the suit, Soter attached a bill of sale for the painting for $3.7 million that 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 location of the painting until seeing it in the DIA's possession as part of the "Van Gogh in America" exhibition.

The painting was an investment, and Soter eventually planned to sell the artwork.

During a court hearing Thursday, Phelps said he was contacted a day earlier by a New York lawyer who claimed to represent an unidentified client who also purports to own the Van Gogh painting. That client was not identified in court.

DIA lawyer Andrew Pauwels faulted Soter's company for failing to report the artwork as stolen or notify the FBI.

The DIA lawyers 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 on display in the United States.

"The painting is immune from seizure pursuant to the act, which prohibits the court from issuing an injunction or entering 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 sought by plaintiff, the lawsuit will be dismissed."

In developing the "Van Gogh in America" exhibition, the DIA entered into agreements to secure loans of artwork from foreign collectors and museums. On May 12, the DIA submitted its application for the painting, among other works of art, to be immune from seizure, the judge said in his ruling.

The DIA's Van Gogh exhibition opened in October and celebrated its status as the first public museum in the United States to purchase a Van Gogh painting, a self-portrait created in 1887. The exhibition ended Sunday and was sold out amid heavy attendance in the final weeks.

The exhibition included 74 Van Gogh paintings and was considered one of the largest of Van Gogh's work in America in the 21st century. The authentic Van Gogh pieces were on loan from roughly 60 museums and collections all over the world, including "The Bedroom" from the Chicago Institute of Art; "Van Gogh's Chair" from London's National Gallery; and "Starry Night (Starry Night Over the Rhone)" from Paris's Musee d'Orsay.

Twitter: @robertsnellnews