Detroit judge dismisses lawsuit over control of van Gogh art

Attorneys for Brazilian collector Gustavo Soter filed a complaint last week, declaring that he bought the painting in 2017 for $3.7 million but hadn’t been able to locate it

Visitors file past at the Van Gogh painting "Une Liseuse De Romans", also known as "The Novel Reader", during the Van Gogh in America exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023, in Detroit.
Visitors file past at the Van Gogh painting "Une Liseuse De Romans", also known as "The Novel Reader", during the Van Gogh in America exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023, in Detroit.Andy Morrison (AP)

A judge on Friday dismissed a lawsuit over control of an 1888 painting by Vincent van Gogh, saying federal law bars him from stepping into a dispute between a Brazilian collector and a Detroit museum.

The painting of a woman with a book, titled The Novel Reader, is protected from seizure, and the Detroit Institute of Arts can’t be ordered to give it up, U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh said.

The painting has been part of a monthslong van Gogh exhibition that ends Sunday. Dozens of paintings by the Dutch master are on loan to the museum.

Attorneys for 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 giving it to a third party.

Brokerarte Capital Partners LLC and Soter, its sole proprietor, had asked the judge to order the museum to surrender the painting.

The museum hasn’t publicly disclosed how it obtained the painting for the show, saying only that it came from Brazil. Steeh, however, said the museum is “blameless.”

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

The judge noted that federal law protects the temporary sharing of international art or works of cultural significance, a defense raised by the museum.

“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.

An email seeking comment was sent to lawyers for Brokerarte Capital and Soter.

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