Major U.S. Museums Are Fighting to Prevent the Return of an Allegedly Stolen Van Gogh

Museum directors across the U.S. say that returning a 1888 Van Gogh to its alleged original owner would severely curtail international loans and exhibitions.

Two paintings hang on the wall, while a passerby looks at one of them
A 2013 exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

More than 70 museums across the U.S. are urging a federal appeals court to prevent the return of a Vincent Van Gogh painting to a Brazilian collector who claims to be its rightful owner.

Doing so would subvert a 1965 federal law which protects the seizure of temporary artwork on display and subsequently restrain the future of international art loans and exhibitions, according to the museums.

Litigation over Van Gogh’s 1888 The Novel Reader began in January, when Gustavo Soter filed a lawsuit against the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), where the work was on display for a temporary Van Gogh exhibition from an undisclosed foreign owner. Soter claimed he purchased the work in 2017 for $3.7 million before turning it over to a third party.

The judge presiding over the case dismissed Soter’s claims, arguing the work was protected by the Immunity from Seizure Act from 1965, which prevents the seizure of cultural objects imported into the U.S. for temporary display. Soter has since appealed the decision and while the DIA’s exhibition ended on Jan. 22, the appellate court ruled the museum should retain possession of the work for the time being.

On March 14, the Association of Art Museum Directors, a nonprofit representing 210 museum directors; the American Alliance of Museums, which has more than 35,000 museum members; and 72 individual museums, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art, filed a motion in support of the DIA.

A decision overriding the Immunity from Seizure Act would open up international art loans to more litigation, therefore preventing foreign lenders from working with art institutions in the U.S., the museum directors claim. “Without the assurance that the loaned works will be returned without interference from the U.S. court system, lenders have little incentive to take the risk of participating in the exhibition project,” said the museum coalitions.

Returning the Van Gogh could scare off international lenders

The influx of visitors for temporary loan exhibitions help support museums financially and encourage cultural opportunities for the public, according to court documents, which also noted the cost of litigation for museums involved in ownership claims.

The museum directors referenced the 1977 case of Egon Schiele’s Portrait of Wally, which was loaned to the Museum of Modern Art before heirs of its original owner sued for the work. The museum had failed to file for the proper Immunity for Seizure exemption and was tied up in costly litigation over the work for decades.

“That was a horrifying story of what could happen,” said Barbara Hoffman, an arts attorney based in New York City.

While only 428 immunity notices were published by the U.S. State Department from 1981 to 1999, this number has increased to 2,2000 since 2000 to 2022, according to court filings from the museum associations.

This is partly because the immunity exception has become much more important in recent years amid an increased aggressiveness amongst lawyers pursuing art claims and a rise in claims for works looted in Europe during the Nazi era, according to Hoffman. U.S. law has also evolved to become more favorable to the original owners of artwork, she said.

If Solter is the original owner of the Van Gogh, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be able to pursue his claims once the painting is returned and without involving the DIA, she said. But a decision against the DIA would completely subvert the purpose of the Immunity from Seizure Act, which aims to encourage and promote temporary exhibitions of significant work in U.S. museums, said Hoffman. Without it, “other people would simply not loan works of art.” Major U.S. Museums Are Fighting to Prevent the Return of an Allegedly Stolen Van Gogh