Battle Over Vincent van Gogh’s Painting: Immunity vs Illicit Source

The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) and Brokerarte Capital Partners LLC, an art dealership, have a disagreement over Vincent van Gogh’s 1888 oil painting, The Novel Reader. Brokerarte purchased the painting in 2017 for $3.7 million, but when DIA brought it to the U.S. from Brazil as part of the Van Gogh in America exhibit, they followed the procedures laid out in the 1965 Immunity from Seizure Act. The U.S. Information Agency published a Federal Register notice that the painting was immune from seizure. DIA’s counsel from Honigman argues that the statute prohibits state and federal courts from ordering museums not to return borrowed art once the State Department has deemed it to be protected, while Brokerarte insists that the seizure immunity statute does not apply if museums have borrowed artwork from illicit sources.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently ordered DIA to hold onto the painting, even though the exhibit has already closed. Brokerage, which is registered in Florida and owned by a Brazilian, argues that the painting was taken by a third party after they purchased it, and they spent years trying to track it down before discovering it was part of the DIA exhibition. Brokerarte sued in federal court in Detroit to enjoin DIA from returning the painting to the Sao Paolo collector who loaned it out.

U.S. District Judge George Steeh agreed with DIA in a Jan. 20 decision, stating that the point of the Seizure Act is to protect museums from seizure threats and the museum conducted appropriate due diligence before seeking a State Department shield. Brokerarte argues that the museum bore the burden of proving that the Sao Paolo collector was a legitimate custodian of the work and entitled to Seizure Act protection, but the museum never satisfied that burden. The 6th Circuit is set to hear the arguments and decide whether courts have a say on artwork that has received protection from the State Department.