DETROIT—A Detroit museum displaying a 1888 painting by Vincent van Gogh as part of a showing of 80 of his works said it shouldn’t be pulled into a dispute over ownership of the multimillion-dollar artwork.
The Detroit Institute of Arts said federal law gives it immunity in a lawsuit filed last week by a Brazilian collector who claims to be the owner of the painting, titled “The Novel Reader.” The museum responded in court Monday, less than a week before the rare U.S. exhibition ends on Sunday.
A lawsuit claims Brokerarte Capital Partners LLC and its sole proprietor, Gustavo Soter of Brazil, acquired the painting in 2017 for $3.7 million but that a “third party” took possession of the art, which has been missing for nearly six years. It has since asked a judge to order the museum to give it up.
The museum has not publicly disclosed the identity of the collector who lent the painting for the van Gogh exhibition—saying only that the oil-on-canvas painting came from a collection in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
On Thursday, a judge heard arguments over control of the painting—saying he hoped the dispute could be settled without entangling the Detroit Institute of Arts. There was no immediate decision about the future of the painting, which is still on loan to the museum as part of a rare van Gogh exhibition.
Brokerarte Capital’s attorney, Andrew Phelps, offered a few new details Thursday. He said the painting, worth an estimated $5 million, was supposed to be in storage in Brazil for future sale.
“My client would like to get it back before it disappears again,” Phelps told US District Judge George Caram Steeh.
An attorney for the museum argued that the judge has no authority to even step into the dispute, under a federal law that protects the temporary sharing of international art or works of cultural significance.
Phelps, however, said the law “is obviously not designed to protect stolen art.”
The painting was not listed as stolen by the FBI or the international Art Loss Register, the museum said.
The judge said he’s faced with a case that doesn’t have much legal precedent to guide him.
The museum is “blameless in this case,” Steeh said.
“I would encourage the attorneys here to address the possibility of resolving the dispute that will avoid the court’s ultimate ruling,” he said.
Attorneys for both sides declined to comment after the hearing.