Vincent van Gogh, "Une liseuse de romans" (1888) (image via Wikimedia Commons)

The van Gogh is leaving the country, after all. 

That was the final ruling from a federal judge in Detroit, where a dispute with a Brazilian art dealer over the ownership of an 1888 painting, long held in private hands, made headlines over the past month. 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. In 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 among the numerous paintings van Gogh sold to the Dutch art dealer Cornelis Hoogendijk, 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. When the painting resurfaced in late 2001, in an Art Institute of Chicago show called Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South, the historian S. Hollis Clayson called it “a rarely seen work.” 

But when it showed up in DIA last fall, it was greeted with a lawsuit. 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. More importantly, Soter claimed that 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-portrait that the president of the City of Detroit Arts Commission acquired for the city for $4,200 at 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 gone to court to secure a legal order that would force DIA to keep the painting he believed was his in the United States until a court could decide on who actually owned it. The museum refused, citing a federal law drawn up in the middle of the Cold War called the Immunity from Judicial Seizure Act. The law had been written, in at least one telling, in order to facilitate exchanges of art 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 officially gave the State Department the power to prevent disputes over the ownership of foreign art from wading into courthouses when that art ended 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 show set to take place at the 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 forced to leave the painting behind in the 1930s while fleeing the Nazi takeover of Austria. 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. Eventually, in order to avoid a trial, the museum paid Jaray’s heirs $19 million to keep the painting there.  

A glance at the Federal Register, the website where decisions like these have to be posted, shows that, so far, this year, the State Department has 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.

Andrew Karpan is based in New York and writes about art, culture and, sometimes, the law. Find him on Twitter.