Michigan museum sued over loaned van Gogh painting wants case dismissed

DETROIT, MI — The Detroit Institute of Arts wants a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit that claims a multi-million dollar van Gogh painting hanging on its walls was stolen and should be seized.

Attorneys for the DIA argue the museum shouldn’t be a party to a legal dispute that really is between a Brazilian art collector and an unnamed third party accused of wrongfully possessing the painting for years.

The lawsuit has not claimed any wrongdoing by the DIA, but wants the museum to hold the on-loan “The Novel Reader” painting for the art collector.

Estimated to be worth about $5 million, the painting is one of 74 Vincent van Gogh artworks on display for the DIA’s Van Gogh In America exhibition on display through Jan. 22.

In a Jan. 16 response to the complaint, DIA attorneys said the painting is protected under the federal Immunity from Seizure Act, which applies to imported works of art deemed to be culturally significant and where the display is in the national interest.

The DIA also argues that allowing the painting’s seizure would have a “chilling effect” on foreign art lenders and their willingness to loan art to US museums.

Importantly, DIA attorneys said that when the museum asked the federal government in May 2022 to cover 27 van Gogh loaned works under the Immunity from Seizure Act, there was no record of “The Novel Reader” allegedly being a stolen work.

The painting was not listed as stolen or missing with the Art Loss Register, the largest private database of stolen art. The painting is also not listed on the FBI’s National Stolen Art File, DIA attorneys said.

The Brazilian art collector has alleged that the painting was purchased in 2017 for $3.7 million and immediately transferred to a third party for possession purposes only. It’s alleged the painting has been missing for “years.”

A federal judge is expected to hear arguments Thursday, Jan. 19 on whether to issue a preliminary injunction to have the painting detained.

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