Thursday, 05 April 2007 00:00

Judge Rules in Favor of Detroit Institute of Arts Regarding Ownership of Van Gogh Painting

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Vincent Van Gogh The Diggers

DETROIT, MI -- A federal district court judge in Detroit has ruled in favor of the Detroit Institute of Arts’ (DIA) assertion that a restitution claim to a Van Gogh painting in the museum’s collection should be dismissed.  In January 2006, the DIA filed a declaratory action asking the court to confirm the museum’s rightful ownership of the painting, following claims by the heirs of the painting’s World War II-era owner.  This order dismisses, with prejudice, the heirs’ counterclaims to the DIA action.  In the decision, which is subject to appeal, Judge Denise Page Hood cited the timing of the heirs’ claims as having been filed well after the expiration of Michigan’s statute of limitations.

The original case involved restitution claims brought in 2004 against both the DIA, for the Van Gogh, and the Toledo Museum of Art, for a Gauguin.  (An Ohio judge dismissed the claims against Toledo in December 2006.) The paintings were owned by Martha Nathan, a German Jew, from 1922 until she sold them, in 1938.  At the time of the sale, she was living in unoccupied Paris as a French citizen.  The paintings were in Basel, where they had been since 1930, three years before the Nazis came to power.  She sold the paintings to a group of art dealers – including Galerie Thannhauser, with whom she had an ongoing relationship before and after the sale – who paid her in Swiss Francs.  After the war and until her death in 1958, Mrs. Nathan (and subsequently her brother Willy Dreyfus, who died in 1977) vigorously sought restitution of property, artwork and financial assets that had been confiscated from her by the Nazis.  Neither ever sought restitution or recovery of the Van Gogh and Gauguin.

In 2004, descendants of Mrs. Nathan’s siblings and in-laws (she had no direct heirs) approached the DIA and the Toledo Museum of Art and requested the return of the paintings.  The museums embarked on a comprehensive research project to confirm their rightful ownership.  The research proved that Mrs. Nathan voluntarily sold the paintings.

The Detroit Institute of Arts shared the results of the museum’s provenance research in its entirety with the Nathan family. The family persisted in its claim, and in January 2006 the DIA and the TMA pursued legal action, filing declaratory actions in their respective jurisdictions.  The declaratory actions asked the courts to confirm the museums’ rightful ownership of the paintings.  The heirs filed counterclaims to the DIA’s action in August 2006.  This order dismisses those counterclaims.

About the Detroit Institute of Arts

Located in the heart of Detroit’s Cultural Center, the Detroit Institute of Arts was founded in 1885 and is recognized as one of the country’s premier art museums.  The museum’s approximately 60,000 works of art comprise a multicultural survey of human creativity from prehistory through the 21st century.  From the first van Gogh to enter a U.S. museum (Self Portrait, 1887), to Diego Rivera’s world-renowned Detroit Industry murals, the DIA’s collection reveals the scope and depth of human experience, imagination, and emotion.  Visit :

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Pause For Thought

Miró on Loving One's Work

"Throughout the time in which I am working on a canvas I can feel how I am beginning to love it, with that love which is born of slow comprehension. "