Detroit — A Detroit federal judge on Friday dismissed a lawsuit to forfeit a Vincent Van Gogh painting allegedly stolen from the Detroit Institute of Arts and give the artwork to its alleged owner in Brazil.
U.S. District Judge George Cram-Stee ruled that the CIA did not have to turn over “Liseuse de Roman,” also known as “The Reader Fiction” or “The Reading Lady,” which is temporarily on display in an exhibition that ends Sunday. The judge ruled that the artwork is protected by a federal law that grants immunity to foreign artwork displayed in the United States.
DIA’s lawyers argued that the artwork could not be touched because it was protected by a federal law called the Immunity from Appropriation Act that grants immunity to foreign artwork displayed in the United States.
“The painting is immune from seizure under the law, which prohibits a court from issuing an injunction or entering any other order that would deny the accused custody or control of the painting,” Steh wrote in the 11-page decision. Because the court cannot grant the final relief sought by the plaintiff, the suit will be dismissed.
The painting had been stolen and lost for nearly six years until it was recently discovered on display at Doha International Airport as part of a “van” at the museum’s Gogh in America exhibition, said the alleged owner, Brazilian art collector Gustavo Suter and his art brokerage firm, Brokerarte Capital Partners LLC.
Steh had ordered nine days earlier that the painting not be removed or hidden, and the DIA had posted a security guard near the van Gogh artwork in recent days.
“The U.S. Department of Defense welcomes the court’s decision to enforce the Federal Immunity from Takeover Act, dismissing the lawsuit involving the ‘fiction reader,’ noting that there were no allegations of wrongdoing by the CIA,” a statement from the museum said on Friday. The museum looks forward to welcoming visitors from all over the world for the final weekend of the “Van Gogh in America” exhibition.
The decision ends a case over a painting that helped draw large crowds to a rare oil painting by the Dutch Post-Impressionist painter and a focus on cross-country sharing of culturally significant artworks, even if they are of checkered origin. Van Gogh painted the painting in 1888, and today it’s worth more than $5 million.
At a hearing on Thursday, Stieh urged the DIA and Soter to negotiate a settlement. But with the show over for the weekend, Stieh made his decision late Friday afternoon.
In the suit, Sutter attached the bill of sale for the painting for $3.7 million which he purchased on May 3, 2017, but never acquired the painting. After purchase, arrange to be stored in Brazil by a third party. Eventually he lost contact with the third party and was unaware of the painting’s location until he saw it in DIA’s possession as part of the “Van Gogh in America” exhibition.
The painting was an investment, and Sutter eventually planned to sell the artwork.
“The artwork itself, because it was so recognizable, my client assumed it would reappear, and it did,” Sutter’s attorney, Aaron Phelps, previously said.
“My client would like to have the painting before it disappears again,” Phelps told the judge on Thursday.
During Thursday’s hearing, Phelps said a New York attorney called him Wednesday and claimed he was representing an anonymous client who also claims to own the Van Gogh painting. This client has not been identified in court.
In court on Thursday, DIA attorney Andrew Bowles slammed Sutter for failing to report the artwork as stolen or notify the FBI.
“He does not explain why he has not done anything in the past five years to recover” the painting, Bowles told the judge.
During the hearing, Sutter’s lawyers said the law does not protect thieves or stolen artwork and criticized the Detroit Museum’s attorneys for continuing to withhold the identity of the art collector who lent the Van Gogh painting to the CIA. The sign accompanying the painting says it is on loan from a private collection in São Paulo.
The Home Office has not disclosed any other information about the property, and its attorney, Bowles, declined to comment when contacted by reporters Thursday.
Sutter did not allege any misconduct or wrongdoing by the DIA, but asked that the CIA be ordered to keep the painting pending settlement of the lawsuit, or to turn the painting over to the plaintiff as the rightful owner, pending a final judgment.
But Stieh sided with the DIA citing the immunity from seizure law, which “serves the important national interest of contributing to the educational and cultural development of the people of the United States.” Souter’s lawyer told the judge that the law only prevents non-owners from confiscating works of art from their owners.
“The purpose of this law is not so much to protect the owner of the object as to encourage exhibition in the United States of objects of cultural interest from abroad,” the judge wrote. “Here, the lender was in possession of the painting and the defendant did its due diligence to determine that the painting was not reported as lost or stolen.”
In developing the “Van Gogh in America” exhibition, DIA has entered into agreements to secure the loan of artworks from foreign collectors and museums. In his ruling, the judge said, on May 12, the US Defense Agency (DIA) submitted its request for the painting, among other works of art, to be safe from confiscation.
“Furthermore, the Director of the US Information Agency determined that each of the requirements of the Act had been met,” Steh concluded.
The Van Gogh Gallery at Doha International Airport opened in October and celebrates its status as the first public museum in the United States to purchase a Van Gogh painting, a self-portrait created in 1887. The exhibition closes on Sunday and is sold out.
The exhibition features 74 paintings by Van Gogh and is considered one of the largest works by Van Gogh in America in the 21st century. Original Van Gogh pieces on loan from about 60 museums and collections around the world, including The Bedroom from the Art Institute of Chicago; “Van Gogh Chair” from the National Gallery, London; and “Starry Night (Starry Night Over the Rhone)” from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.