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Judge promises decision in Van Gogh painting case 'sooner rather than later'

Posted at 6:13 PM, Jan 19, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-19 23:42:33-05

DETROIT (WXYZ) — The dispute over a Van Gogh painting at the center of an ownership debate made its debut in federal court today. The judge didn't make a decision. However, he said he'll issue a written opinion "sooner rather than later" unless a settlement occurs.

Outside of the DIA, 7 Action News spoke with Cassandra Butler, alongside her homeschool students and parents.

She said, “When I saw (the painting) I said, 'That’s the picture.'"

“Our students are studying about Van Gogh. So, it was just good for them to actually come down and actually see," Butler explained.

Parent Bri Martin said, “I actually really enjoyed a lot of his sketch work. Just to see like the detail, shadowing, and shading.”

During their museum visit, a couple of miles away, attorneys for the DIA and attorneys representing a Brazilian art collector faced off in federal court.

The art collector, Gustavo Soter, claims to own Van Gogh's painting, The Novel Reader. Cameras aren't allowed in federal court, but 7 Action News sat in on the hearing.

His attorney, Aaron Phelps, said Soter bought the painting in May 2017 for $3.7 million.

He said a third party agreed to store the painting for Soter, and there was periodic communication up until 2019-2020.

The attorney said Soter became concerned in 2020 when the third party stopped all communication.

The plaintiff demands the DIA identify who loaned the painting to the museum and produce the loan agreement.

Phelps said he received a phone call from an attorney in New York yesterday who claims to represent the "ultimate beneficiary owners". However, he said no further information was provided.

The DIA's attorney, Andrew Pauwels, told the judge that the plaintiff never reported the art lost or stolen to the Art Loss Register, the FBI, nor the State Department. He asked the judge to dismiss the case.

But here's the main point of contention: the DIA said it followed a State Department statute in order to acquire the artwork and that being approved by the State Department makes the DIA immune to this lawsuit.

The plaintiff’s attorney says that doesn't apply.

Judge George Caram Steeh said, "The interpretation of the statute is kind of open, given there's very little case law to address these issues."

The judge goes on to say, "I'll address an outcome that will have to occur sooner rather than later."

Back outside the DIA, museum-goer Maurice Butler said, “It will certainly be interesting to see how the outcome is.”

The DIA released this statement today:

The Detroit Institute of Arts explained its position on the pending dispute between two private parties in the pleadings filed by the DIA’s counsel last week. The DIA has no further comment while the court considers the matter.

The museum’s focus during these final days of the internationally celebrated Van Gogh in America exhibition is on welcoming guests from Macomb, Oakland, and Wayne Counties, around the state of Michigan, the United States, and the world.