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The Unusual Story of a Van Gogh deemed “Immune From Seizure”

After all, the van Gogh has decided to leave the country. 

This was the final ruling of a federal judge in Detroit. The case involved a dispute over ownership of an 1888 painting that had been in private hands for many years. Last Friday, the judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by Gustavo Soter, who claimed he bought the painting in 2017 but lost track of its whereabouts after he gave it to a third party — until it surfaced in a show on van Gogh at the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA) that closed this weekend.

The piece in question is “Une liseuse de romans,” a small, quiet work that depicts a woman reading plaintively. His recent book on the painter and his relationship with his sisters, the Dutch art historian Willem-Jan Verlinden writes that “it is difficult to determine who the woman, so intently reading her novel, was supposed to represent,” though Verlinden speculates that the painting shows Wilhelmina van Gogh, “his favorite sister.” Van Gogh himself had painted it shortly after Paul Gauguin began living in his home, and in a letter, he describes it as a combination of parts: “luxuriant hair very black, a green bodice, the sleeves the color of wine lees, the skirt black, the background all yellow, bookshelves with books.”

Even before Soter’s lawsuit stoked sudden interest in the painting, “Une liseuse de romans” was seen as a notable get. It was one of the many paintings van Gogh sold Cornelis Hoogendijk, a Dutch art dealer. whose death in an asylum in the Dutch city of Ermelo was not unlike van Gogh’s own. Until Soter appeared, the last publicly known owner of the painting had been L​​ouis Franck, described in a Christie’s catalogue as “a passionate sailor, international banker and discriminating art collector. Franck died in 1988. Franck died in 1988. The painting was rediscovered in 2001 in an Art Institute of Chicago exhibition called Van Gogh, Gauguin: The Studio of the SouthS. Hollis Clayson is the historian called it “a rarely seen work.” 

It was greeted with a lawsuit after it turned up in DIA last year. Attorneys for Soter, the Brazilian art collector, estimated the painting’s “current value is over $5 million,” though the bill of sale he presented to back up his claim of ownership showed that he bought it for $3.7 million in 2017. Even more important, Soter claimed the painting was his. 

Shortly after he said to have purchased it, an unnamed third party “took possession of the painting,” according to his lawyers, whose filings refrained from specifying whom, exactly, they were accusing of stealing it. The first and only time Soter claims to have seen his painting since buying it was after he was shown a photograph of it hanging on the walls of DIA, which identified it only as on loan from a “Private collection, São Paulo.”

It was one of 27 van Gogh paintings that the DIA had loaned from around the world for the show, meant to celebrate the Detroit museum’s longstanding involvement with van Gogh’s work; the museum touts itself as the first in the country to buy one: an 1887 self-portraitThe City of Detroit Arts Commission president purchased the city’s assets for $4,200 in an auction in 1922. Many of the paintings in the Detroit show, however, were being loaned from abroad, mostly from museums like the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and the Van Gogh Museum in the Netherlands. “Une liseuse de romans,” however, was just one of two that were lent from unnamed private collections. 

Vincent van Gogh, “Self-Portrait with Straw Hat” (1887) (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Soter had taken Soter to court to obtain a legal order requiring DIA to keep the painting he claimed to be his in the United States until a judge could determine who it was. The museum refused, citing a federal law from the Cold War that the Immunity from Judicial Seizure Act. The law was written at least once to facilitate art exchanges between the Soviet Union (and the United States). Per an article in a legal journal highlighted by the museum’s lawyers, Virginia Senator Harry Byrd had backed the 1965 law at the behest of “a pending exchange between a Soviet museum and the University of Richmond,” which had run into concerns regarding “artworks that had been appropriated by the Soviet government from expatriots.”

The law gave the State Department the authority to stop disputes over ownership of foreign art from being brought into courthouses if the art ends up in US museums. The agency was given the power to do this at its own discretion, based on a determination that the work of art covered is a “culturally significant object.” The most notable display of that power would occur about 15 years later, when the agency refused to use it to back a later exhibition of Soviet artwork following the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, which had the effect of sinking a showSet to take place at National Gallery of Art called Art from the Hermitage Museum of Leningrad

“Paintings get immunity from seizure all the time,” Nicholas O’Donnell, a lawyer who runs the Art & Museum Law practice at the New York firm Sullivan & Worcester LLP, told Hyperallergic

Getting the State Department to sign off on loans of any work of art had become “standard practice” for art museums ever since the Museum of Modern Art reportedly neglected to do so when loaning out the Egon Schiele painting “Portrait of Wally.” O’Donnell says. After the painting, then owned by the Leopold Museum in Vienna, appeared in a show of Schiele’s work in 1997, it was the subject of a lawsuit from the heirs of a Jewish-Viennese art dealer named Lea Bondi Jaray, who said she had been forcedTo flee the Nazi takeover in Austria, she left the painting behind in 1930s. According to Jaray’s letters, she had run into the Austrian art dealer Rudolf Leopold in London and asked him to recover the painting for her; instead, it ended up in Leopold’s collection. To avoid a trial, the painting was eventually returned to her. the museum paid Jaray’s heirs $19 million to keep the painting there.  

A quick look at the Federal Register shows that so far this year, the State Department has posted decisions such as these to the website. granted its protection to Tim Walker photos loaned to J. Paul Getty Museum, objects collected for a show on Philadelphia’s Forten Family at the Museum of the American Revolution, and works made by the Greek sculptor Chryssa, assembled for an exhibition later this year at the Dia Art Foundation. What was at stake in Soter’s lawsuit was whether that protection could hold up in court in disputes that involved murky and disputed claims of provenance that neither side seemingly wanted to reveal. 

The opacity over who exactly owns van Gogh’s “Liseuse De Romans” is also not uncommon, says O’Donnell. 

“Typically speaking, a lender either wants to be identified or doesn’t want to be identified and museums will almost always honor whichever wish a lender goes with,” O’Donnell says. “Most of those reasons are non-nefarious. They could just be discrete people.” 

After first ordering DIA to “refrain from damaging, destroying, concealing, disposing [or] moving,” the painting, the federal judge in Detroit had changed his mind late on Friday. The museum’s lawyers had made the case that letting the lawsuit continue at all “would threaten the ability of U.S. art museums to assemble world-renowned exhibitions … likely chilling the willingness of foreign lenders to lend works of art to U.S. institutions.”

At a hearing the day before, according to reports, Judge George Steeh said that he was of the opinion that the museum was “blameless” for how it went about loaning the art and that there was very little legal precedent for how to interpret a 1965 law which, while relied on regularly by museums, “has been invoked sparingly” in court. 

Ultimately, he would write that the law prevented him “from issuing any order depriving defendant of custody or control of the painting.” The painting’s future would not be decided in a federal courthouse.

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