Appeals court orders DIA officials to hold onto Van Gogh painting amid legal fight

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — Federal appeals court judges Wednesday ordered Detroit Institute of Arts officials to hold onto a long-missing multimillion-dollar painting by Vincent van Gogh while a legal battle continues over its fate and rightful owner.

The order was filed less than a week after U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh dismissed a lawsuit filed by the purported owner, Brazilian collector Gustavo Soter's art brokerage company, Brokerarte Capital Partners LLC. The company sued the DIA to recover "Liseuse De Romans," also known as "The Novel Reader" or "The Reading Lady," claiming that the painting had been stolen and missing for six years until being discovered hanging on the wall of the Detroit museum as part of the "Van Gogh in America" exhibition.

The exhibition ended Sunday and the painting's current location was unclear early Thursday.

People catch a glimpse of the painting titled ‘The Novel Reader’ while visiting the ‘Van Gogh in America’ exhibition at the Detroit Institute of the Arts, in Detroit, January 22, 2023. A Brazilian art collector is seeking to recover the painting, claiming that it had been stolen after he had purchased it nearly six years ago.

"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," museum spokeswoman Megan Hawthorne wrote in an email Thursday. "The DIA will have no further comment prior to a ruling by the court."

On Jan. 20, Steeh concluded that the painting could not be seized because it was protected by a federal law granting immunity to foreign artwork on display in the United States.

Judges with the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, however, ordered the DIA to retain possession of the painting because Brokerarte's appeal "raises issues in its motion that deserve full pleading and reasoned consideration."

Brokerarte lawyer Aaron Phelps declined comment Thursday.

The newest order continues a legal fight over the 1888 painting that helped lure large crowds to the DIA's exhibition that featured works by the Dutch Post-Impressionist master and brought attention to 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 its request to have DIA officials retain possession of the painting, Brokerarte lawyer Aaron Phelps said Soter was worried about losing the painting again.

“The painting is a Van Gogh; it is inherently unique, irreplaceable, and difficult to value,” Phelps wrote. “And Brokerarte has been looking for its property for years. If the court fails to grant immediate injunctive relief, the painting could disappear again and be lost forever.”

In the lawsuit, 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 it was spotted in the exhibition.

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 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 included 74 Van Gogh paintings and was considered one of the largest of Van Gogh's work in America in the 21st century. Authentic Van Gogh painting and drawings 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