Van Gogh battle turns bitter as Detroit museum scoffs at Brazilian 'owner's' claim
DETROIT — Lawyers for the Detroit Institute of Arts on Monday scoffed at allegations that a Vincent van Gogh painting was missing for six years until being found hanging on the wall of the museum, using an exclamation point in a federal court of appeals filing to counter the purported owner's claim.
Lawyers for the institute Monday disparaged claims that the painting was lost and stolen, arguing the legal fight over the fate of the 1888 oil painting "Liseuse De Romans," also known as "The Novel Reader" or "The Reading Lady," should be dismissed and any future legal battles should happen in Brazil.
That is the home country of the unidentified lender who let the institute include "The Novel Reader" in the "Van Gogh in America" exhibition, which ended Jan. 22. Brazil also is the home of the purported owner, Brazilian collector Gustavo Soter, whose art brokerage company, Brokerarte Capital Partners, initiated a legal tug-of-war in early January in federal court in Detroit.
The fight is unfolding in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati after U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh dismissed the case Jan. 20 in Detroit. The judge concluded "The Novel Reader" could not be seized and given to Soter because it was protected by a federal law granting immunity to foreign artwork on display in the United States.
"Plaintiff claims it lost track of the painting, a famous Van Gogh!" Detroit Institute of Arts lawyer Andrew Pauwels wrote in an appeals court filing.
"While this may be so (again, it is not a question for the court), the DIA notes that, prior to submitting its application for immunity, it received confirmation from the Art Loss Register, the world's largest database of stolen art, that the painting was not registered as stolen or missing," he added.
Appeals court judges have ordered the instittute to retain possession of the painting because Brokerarte's appeal "raises issues in its motion that deserve full pleading and reasoned consideration."
"The Novel Reader" helped lure large crowds to the exhibition in Detroit that featured more than 70 works by the Dutch Post-Impressionist master and brought attention to sharing between countries of culturally significant artwork, even one with a checkered provenance. Brokerarte paid $3.7 million for the painting in 2017, according to court records, and its lawyer says the artwork is worth more than $5 million today.
Soter never took possession of the painting, according to the lawsuit. 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.
DIA officials have refused to identify the lender who provided "The Novel Reader" for the exhibition. A sign next to the painting during the exhibition said the artwork was on loan from a private collection in São Paulo, Brazil.
Soter claims the artwork was stolen.
"The DIA's lender voluntarily sent the painting to a foreign country for display at a public museum," Pauwels wrote, "acts one would not expect of a thief."
The legal fight has broad implications for the public art world, the DIA lawyer added.
"The resurrection of this lawsuit would threaten the ability of U.S. art museums to assemble world-renowned exhibitions, such as Van Gogh in America, likely chilling the willingness of foreign lenders to lend art to U.S. institutions," Pauwels wrote.