Detroit Institute of Arts 'blameless' in Van Gogh dispute, judge says

Posted at 1:08 PM, Jan 19, 2023

DETROIT (AP) — A judge heard arguments Thursday over control of a 1888 painting by Vincent van Gogh and said he hoped the dispute could be settled without entangling a Detroit museum.

There was no immediate decision about the future of the painting, “The Novel Reader,” which is on loan to the Detroit Institute of Arts as part of a rare van Gogh exhibition that ends Sunday.

Brazilian collector Gustavo Soter filed a lawsuit last week, declaring that he bought the art in 2017 for $3.7 million but hadn't been able to locate it after turning it over to a third party.

Brokerarte Capital Partners LLC and Soter, its sole proprietor, want a judge to order the museum to give it up.

The museum hasn't disclosed how it obtained the painting or what will happen to it after the close of the exhibition, which opened in October and includes dozens of works by van Gogh borrowed from collectors around the world.

Brokerarte Capital's attorney, Andrew Phelps, offered a few new details Thursday. He said the painting, worth an estimated $5 million, was supposed to be in storage in Brazil for future sale.

“My client would like to get it back before it disappears again,” Phelps told U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh.

An attorney for the museum argued that the judge has no authority to even step into the dispute, under a federal law that protects the temporary sharing of international art or works of cultural significance.

Phelps, however, said the law “is obviously not designed to protect stolen art.”

The painting was not listed as stolen by the FBI or the international Art Loss Register, the museum said.

The judge said he's faced with a case that doesn't have much legal precedent to guide him.

The museum is “blameless in this case,” Steeh said.

“I would encourage the attorneys here to address the possibility of resolving the dispute that will avoid the court's ultimate ruling,” he said.

Attorneys for both sides declined to comment after the hearing.