Judge blocks DIA from concealing Van Gogh in international fight

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — A federal judge Wednesday blocked Detroit Institute of Arts officials from moving or hiding a painting by Vincent van Gogh, less than 24 hours after a company that claims ownership sued the museum, saying the artwork had been missing for nearly six years until it was discovered on display as part of the museum's "Van Gogh in America" exhibition.

A Van Gogh gone:A lawsuit and international art hunt that leads to DIA

The order from U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh prevents DIA officials from "damaging, destroying, concealing, disposing, moving" or substantially impairing the value of the rare oil painting "Liseuse De Romans" — also known as "The Novel Reader" or "The Reading Lady."

The order came less than 24 hours after Brazilian art collector Gustavo Soter's art brokerage company, Brokerarte Capital Partners LLC, sued the DIA, describing an international hunt for a rare oil painting by the Dutch Post-Impressionist master. Soter is trying to reclaim the painting, which he bought for $3.7 million in 2017, before the exhibition leaves Detroit in 11 days.

Soter’s lawyers want the judge to grant immediate possession of the artwork or, as an alternative, “a judgment for the value of the painting.”

"The painting was unlawfully taken from plaintiff and is currently being unlawfully detained by the DIA," the lawsuit reads.

The lawsuit also cites a federal rule that would let the judge order that the painting be seized while the case is pending or require DIA officials to post a bond equal to at least twice the value of the painting.

“Given the value of the painting, its one-of-a-kind nature, and its knack for disappearing, there is good cause for this court to issue an order requiring the DIA to retain possession of the painting pending further order of the court,” Soter’s lawyers wrote in a related filing requesting a temporary restraining order and possession of the artwork.

The judge Wednesday set a hearing for Jan. 19.

"No allegation of misconduct by the DIA has been alleged, and there has been no request or order for any modification to the exhibition," DIA spokeswoman Megan Hawthorne wrote in an email to The Detroit News on Wednesday. "The DIA will continue to act in accordance with all applicable laws and museum best practices."

Visitors file past at the Van Gogh painting "Liseuse De Romans," also known as "The Novel Reader," during the "Van Gogh in America" exhibit at the Detroit institute of Arts on Wednesday.

The painting's estimated worth is more than $5 million.

"Immediate action is urgently needed," Soter's lawyer, Aaron Phelps, wrote. "If the DIA moves the painting or surrenders possession to a third-party, plaintiff will lose the chance to recover the painting, for which it has been searching for years."

After paying for the artwork, he transferred possession, but not title, to an unidentified third party, the lawsuit alleges. No additional details are provided in the six-page lawsuit, filed in federal court in Detroit.

"This party absconded with the painting, and plaintiff has been unaware of its whereabouts for years," Phelps wrote. "Since plaintiff purchased the painting in May 2017, plaintiff has not known the location of the painting."

The DIA Van Gogh exhibition, which runs through Jan. 22, includes 74 Van Gogh paintings and is considered one of the largest of Van Gogh's work in America in the 21st century.

Then, a breakthrough.

"Recently, however, plaintiff learned that the painting is in the DIA's possession, on display as part of the museum's 'Van Gogh in America' exhibition," the lawyer wrote.

The DIA, in an emailed statement Tuesday, said the museum follows best practices before agreeing to international loans, including the research of ownership from scholarly sources, the Art Loss Register and the U.S. Federal Register.

"This evening the DIA was made aware of a complaint filed with respect to a work of art currently on loan to the DIA. The DIA has not yet been served with the complaint and cannot comment on the matter," the DIA said Tuesday.

The exhibition opened in October and celebrates the DIA's status as the first public museum in the United States to purchase a Van Gogh painting, a self-portrait created in 1887.

The exhibition, which runs through Jan. 22, includes 74 Van Gogh paintings and is considered one of the largest of Van Gogh's work in America in the 21st century. The authentic Van Gogh pieces are 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.

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