Judge wants parties to settle dispute over van Gogh painting at Detroit Institute of Arts

DIA ‘blameless’ in legal battle over ‘Liseuse De Romans’ painting

Vincent van Gogh's "Liseuse De Romans" painting hangs at the Detroit Institute of Arts on Jan. 5, 2023. The piece of art is currently involved in litigation between the Detroit museum and a Brazilian art collector who claims he owns the painting. (Varnum LLP)

DETROIT – A federal judge is encouraging the opposing parties in a lawsuit involving a van Gogh painting on display in Detroit to settle the issue themselves.

Attorneys for the Detroit Institute of Arts appeared in federal court in Detroit Thursday, Jan. 19, alongside attorneys for a Brazilian art collector who claims he owns a van Gogh painting on display at the museum. It was believed the judge would issue a ruling on the matter Thursday, but that wasn’t the case.

UPDATE: Detroit judge dismisses lawsuit over control of Van Gogh art

Instead, the judge encouraged the plaintiff and defendant to come to an agreement together prior to the judge issuing a final ruling. The judge said in court that the sides have made some progress in the judge’s chambers, but have not reached a conclusion yet.

“I would encourage the attorneys here to address the possibility of resolving the dispute that will avoid the court’s ultimate ruling,” U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh said.

Still, the judge said he will issue a written ruling sooner than later, should the parties fail to come to an agreement.

Last week, art collector Gustavo Soter of the company Brokerarte Capital Partners filed a lawsuit against the DIA over van Gogh’s 1888 “Liseuse De Romans” painting currently on display as part of the museum’s Van Gogh in America exhibit. Soter claims he purchased the painting in 2017 for $3.7 million, and hasn’t had possession of it since.

According to court documents, Soter turned the painting over to a third party after he bought it. He claims the third party has since withheld it, so he hasn’t known the artwork’s whereabouts for the last six years.

Now, the original van Gogh piece is on display at the DIA, who reportedly loaned it from a private collection for the duration of the exhibit -- which is slated to end on Jan. 22. The lawsuit filed on Jan. 11 says Soter became aware of the painting’s location, and saw this as an opportunity to recover it.

Read more: Art collector sues Detroit Institute of Arts, claims he owns van Gogh painting on display

The DIA has not released its lending agreement for the “Liseuse De Romans,” nor has the court asked it to. So, it’s not publicly known exactly who’s loaning the painting to the Detroit museum -- though it is believed to come from a collection in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

“The loan was accepted in accordance with best museum practices and is subject to the protections of applicable federal law through registration with the U.S. Department of State,” the museum said last week.

Soter claims that the DIA is essentially aiding in theft, as it has custody of a painting without consent of its alleged rightful owner. The Brazilian art collector did include his bill of sale for the painting in the initial court filing. He’s requesting the judge to order the museum to give up the painting.

In court Thursday, the attorney for Brokerarte Capital Partners said the painting -- which is now worth an estimated $5 million -- was supposed to be in storage in Brazil for future sale, and that Soter would “like to get it back before it disappears again.”

The judge maintained Thursday that the DIA is “blameless” in this situation, and is not accused of wrongdoing. Museum representatives have said they want no part in the legal battle unfolding over the artwork.

Attorneys for the DIA argue that the temporary sharing of international art of works of cultural significance is protected under federal law. Because of the international significance, they also argue that the district judge doesn’t have the authority to settle the dispute.

The museum said the painting has not been reported missing to the FBI or to the international Art Loss Register. Attorneys for the DIA requested a dismissal of the lawsuit earlier this week.

The hearing Thursday came after the judge issued a temporary restraining order against the DIA on Jan. 11 barring the museum from moving the artwork. Soter is concerned that the painting will be moved again once the van Gogh in America exhibit concludes next week.

“Liseuse De Romans” is one of 80 van Gogh pieces on display at the DIA’s exhibit, which has been running since Oct. 2, 2022.

About the Author:

Cassidy Johncox is a senior digital news editor covering stories across the spectrum, with a special focus on politics and community issues.