Judge delays deciding whether to seize Van Gogh painting on loan at DIA

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — A federal judge on Thursday delayed deciding whether to seize an allegedly stolen painting by Vincent van Gogh from the Detroit Institute of Arts and giving the artwork to its purported owner in Brazil, a move that buys time for both sides to negotiate a possible settlement.

U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh held a nearly hour-long hearing in court over the short-term fate of "Liseuse De Romans," also known as "The Novel Reader" or "The Reading Lady.” The purported owner, Brazilian art collector Gustavo Soter and his art brokerage company, Brokerarte Capital Partners LLC, said the painting was stolen and had been missing for nearly six years until it was discovered recently on display at the DIA as part of the museum's "Van Gogh in America" exhibition.

“I would encourage the attorneys here to address possibilities for resolving this dispute in a way to avoid the court’s ultimate ruling,” Steeh told lawyers for the DIA and Soter.

The painting in question, Van Gogh's artwork "Liseuse De Romans," is featured at the Detroit Institute of Arts through Sunday.

Thursday's hearing was scheduled eight days after Steeh blocked DIA officials from moving or hiding the painting, which is on display through Sunday. DIA lawyers, however, counter that the artwork cannot be touched because it is protected by a federal law granting immunity to foreign artwork on display in the United States.

Soter's lawyers said Thursday the law does not protect thieves or stolen artwork and criticized the Detroit museum's lawyers for continuing to shield from public view the identity of the art collector who loaned the Van Gogh painting to the DIA. Soter is the undisputed owner and has proven that fact by filing a bill of sale and noting that no one has emerged to stake a competing claim to the painting, his lawyers said.

"My client would like to get the painting before it disappears again," Soter's lawyer, Aaron Phelps, told the judge.

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 last week.

The Immunity from Seizure Act only prohibits non-owners from seizing artwork from owners, he said.

"This matter is just the opposite — plaintiff is the owner and seeks recovery of its own property," Phelps wrote in an earlier court filing. "The Immunity from Seizure Act does not bar this court from returning to plaintiff what already belongs to it."

More:DIA 'misguided' in fight over stolen Van Gogh painting, lawyer says

"Our view is someone who stole a work of art can make no agreement for its exhibition under the statute," Phelps wrote in an email to the DIA's legal team that was filed in court Wednesday.

The hearing is the latest legal development in a case that has drawn large crowds — and a dedicated security guard — to a rare oil painting by the Dutch Post-Impressionist master and a focus on the sharing between countries of culturally significant artwork, even one with a checkered provenance.

Hundreds stand in line for the “Van Gogh in America” exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts on Sunday.

The hearing also revealed a potential ownership dispute involving the painting and provided new details about the artwork's mysterious path from Van Gogh's paintbrush to Detroit.

Phelps said he was contacted Wednesday by a New York lawyer who claimed to represent an unidentified client who purports to own the Van Gogh painting. That client was not identified in court.

Van Gogh created the painting in 1888. Soter says his company bought the painting for $3.7 million in 2017 and that the artwork is worth more than $5 million today. The painting was an investment, and Soter eventually planned to sell the artwork.

After paying for the painting, he transferred possession, but not title, to an unidentified third party, the lawsuit alleges.

On Thursday, Soter's lawyer said the painting was kept in a Brazilian storage facility for several years.

"Time went by and he believed the painting to be in storage and safe," Phelps said.

Soter maintained contact with the third party until about 2019-20 when all communication stopped, Phelps said.

"The artwork itself, being recognizable, my client assumed it would resurface again, and it did," Phelps said.

Soter's legal team recently discovered the painting on display at the DIA. A sign accompanying the painting says it is on loan from a private collection in São Paulo.

The DIA has not disclosed any further ownership information and its lawyer, Andrew Pauwels, refused comment when approached Thursday by reporters.

In court, Pauwels faulted Soter's company for failing to report the artwork as stolen or notify the FBI.

"He doesn't explain why he didn't do anything for the last five years to recover" the painting, Pauwels told the judge.

The DIA's Van Gogh exhibition 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 exhibition ends Sunday.

The exhibition 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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