A Brazilian art collector is not giving up his fight to recover a Vincent van Gogh painting that he claims was stolen from him years ago, then ended up in the Detroit Institute of Arts.
In US District Court on Monday, the art collector’s attorney, Aaron Phelps, filed his notice of appeal over a judge’s order that dismissed a lawsuit against the Department of the Interior last week. The two-page notice did not provide any details of the appeal, except to note that an appeal was filed in the United States Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
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Phelps represents art collector Gustavo Sutter, who has sued the Department of the Interior in federal court, hoping the judge will order the Detroit Museum to turn over his painting. But the judge refused and dismissed the case, with the DIA arguing that the painting is protected from seizure by nearly 60 years of federal law.
The case concerns an 1888 painting known as “The Novel Reader” that was on display at the museum as part of its “Van Gogh in America” exhibition, which opened in October 2022 and closed on Sunday. More than 200,000 art lovers visited the exhibition, which celebrated a century since DIM became the first American museum to purchase a Van Gogh artwork in 1922. The unprecedented collection of 74 Van Gogh pieces is from more than 50 international sources, including The official Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, attracting visitors from all over the world.
The Novel Reader, on loan from a private collection in São Paulo, Brazil, became the subject of international intrigue and the most popular piece of art in the United States when Sutter claimed the piece was stolen from him after his 2017 purchase, when a third party claims he “ran away” with the piece. Sutter says he searched for the painting for nearly six years before learning it was temporarily hanging at Doha International Airport.
He sued, asking that the DIA return the painting to him rather than the source who lent it to the museum, but US District Judge George Cramsteh dismissed the case last week, finding that the Immunity from Seizure Act “prevents a court from making an injunction or entering any other order that would The defendant is denied custody or control of the painting.”
The State Department said it has applied for State Department protection under the law, which its lawyers say is important for museums that collect international exhibitions.
The DIA also noted that the painting was nowhere reported as stolen or missing although Sutter claims to have bought it for $3.7 million in 2017. “The Novel Reader” is now estimated to be worth over $5 million.
“Because the court cannot grant the final relief sought by the plaintiff, the suit will be dismissed,” Steh wrote in an 11-page opinion last Friday. A request for a temporary restraining and possession order was also denied. Stieh had temporarily banned the museum from moving the painting, which led to him stationing a guard at his side as visitors flocked to the exhibition in its last days.
It was not clear on Monday whether the painting was still in the possession of the museum, which was closed until Friday, January 27, to allow time for staff to rest and recover from the intense demands of the exhibition crowd.
On Monday evening, DIA Entertainment released a statement saying, “Team DIA is enjoying a well-deserved rest from the excitement of… Van Gogh in America, the exhibition, which received local and international acclaim over the course of four months. … DIA will review with its attorney the recent submission of (Soter’s LLC) Brokerarte Capital and has no comment at this time.”