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Detroit Institute of Arts wins legal battle over Van Gogh painting

The Detroit Insistute of Arts will not have to turn over a $15 million (EUR11.2 million) Van Gogh painting sold by a German Jewish woman during the Nazi era, a court has ruled.

The U.S. District Court decided that Detroit's main art gallery can keep "Les Becheurs," or "The Diggers," which it first acquired in 1969, The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press reported Tuesday. Relatives of the original owner had sued to get the painting back, claiming that she was forced to sell it for less than market value.

In an order released Saturday, Judge Denise Page Hood cited the expiration of Michigan's statute of limitations in finding for the museum. She dismissed claims by relatives of Martha Nathan, saying that they did not raise them until 2004, 66 years after the original sale.

The dispute landed in court in January 2006. A parallel dispute between the heirs and the Toledo Museum of Art over a Gauguin painting was similarly dismissed by an Ohio judge in December.

"It's tremendous relief," the Free Press quoted DIA director Graham Beal as saying. "You always fear the worst, and while we felt we had the strongest possible case, and we wouldn't have taken our stand if we hadn't felt so strongly, it's still a great relief to know that this is finished."

The DIA received the 1889 painting as a bequest from Detroit art collector Robert Tannahill.

Nathan, a member of a notable banking family who emigrated from Germany to France in 1937 to escape Nazi persecution, sold the Van Gogh to a consortium of three Jewish art dealers in Paris in 1938 for $9,360 (EUR7,003). One of the dealers sold the picture for $34,000 (EUR25,438) in 1941 to Tannahill.

The DIA is home to more than 60,000 works.

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