Judge: Detroit Institute of Arts must hang onto van Gogh art amid ownership battle

Brazilian art collector claims ownership of painting at DIA

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 court has ordered the Detroit Institute of Arts to hold onto an original van Gogh painting that a Brazilian art collector claims he rightfully owns.

Under court order, the DIA must retain possession of the 1888 van Gogh painting “Liseuse De Romans” -- known in English as the “The Novel Reader” -- which it had on display for a van Gogh-centered exhibit. That exhibit concluded last week, but the painting isn’t allowed to be moved, as the ownership of the painting is currently being disputed.

Earlier this month, Brazilian art collector Gustavo Soter, the sole proprietor of brokerage company Brokerarte Capital Partners, filed a lawsuit against the DIA, requesting a judge to order the museum to surrender the painting. Soter claims he purchased the original van Gogh artwork in 2017 for $3.7 million, and hasn’t had possession of it since.

In the lawsuit, attorneys for Brokerarte said Soter turned the painting over to a third party after he bought it, and that they withheld it from him since. The art, now worth an estimated $5 million, was supposed to be in storage in Brazil for future sale, attorneys said.

The DIA had reportedly loaned the painting from a private collection specifically for its Van Gogh in America exhibit. Dozens of van Gogh paintings were loaned to the DIA for the show. The museum hasn’t publicly disclosed how it obtained “The Novel Reader,” but officials did say the painting came from Brazil.

Soter claims that the DIA is essentially aiding in theft, as it has custody of a painting without consent of its alleged rightful owner. However, the painting was never listed as stolen by the FBI or the international Art Loss Register, the museum said.

In court, U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh sided with the museum, saying the DIA is “blameless” in this situation.

On Jan. 20, Judge Steeh dismissed the lawsuit against the DIA altogether. He said the painting couldn’t be seized because it was protected by a federal law granting immunity to foreign artwork on display in the U.S.

“Requiring an institution to ultimately bear the burden of proof in court that a foreign lender had a legal right to loan an object before it can assert that the object is immune from seizure would be circuitous, would not further the (law’s) stated purpose and would likely result in a chilling effect on cultural exchanges,” Steeh said.

Lawyers for Brokerarte appealed Steeh’s ruling.

On Wednesday, Jan. 27, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ordered the DIA to hang onto the painting in question, saying Soter’s attorneys raise issues that “deserve full pleading and reasoned consideration.”

A DIA spokesperson told the Associated Press that the museum 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.”

The Van Gogh in America exhibit ended on Jan. 22.

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.