12/21/2007 02:38 PM

Anglo-Russian Art Spat

Russia Threatens to Withhold Artworks

By Andrew Curry in Berlin

A Royal Academy exhibition in London is in danger. Some of the masterpieces slated for the display were taken from rich collectors during the Communist Revolution -- and Russia's not interested in giving them back.

The fate of a long-planned exhibition of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art in London is in doubt after Russian officials raised concerns that the art might not make the return trip.

The exhibit, "From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings" includes more than 120 works from the collections of four top Russian museums: the Hermitage and State Russian Museum, both in St. Petersburg, and Moscow's State Pushkin Museum and Tretyakov Gallery. The exhibit's debut was in Germany, where it has been on display at Düsseldorf's Museum Kunst Palast since September.

Russian officials are concerned that the works -- some of which were seized from rich collectors by the Bolsheviks during 1917's Russian Revolution -- could be subject to claims by the collectors' heirs or by companies trying to seize Russian assets as part of lawsuits. "Some persons who say they are the heirs of the original owners have shown a desire to claim their rights," a press spokesman at the Russian Embassy in London told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "The concern is about legal guarantees of seizure of artworks."

Seized Artwork

Many of the paintings were collected by two Russian textile tycoons before they fled the country during the revolution. The grandson of collector Sergei Shchukin, Andre-Marc Delocque-Foucard, has tried repeatedly to reclaim his grandfather's paintings from Russian museums. One of the paintings -- "The Dance," by Henri Matisse -- is prominently featured in the planned Royal Academy exhibition.

Another concern is that companies with legal claims against Russia might try to have artwork seized as assets as part of debt recovery lawsuits.

Russia wants stronger assurances from the British that all the art will be returned at the exhibition's end. "The letter of the law that Great Britain should take must contain the word 'guarantee,'" Hermitage Museum Director Mikhail Piotrkovsky told the Russian Interfax news agency.

In Germany, such clauses are standard. "It's normal in German loan agreements that art is guaranteed, and guaranteed to go back," says Marina Schuster, spokeswoman for the Museum Kunst Palast in Düsseldorf.

Russians are insisting on similar assurances before they send their collections to London. "Germany has comprehensive legislation that gives such guarantee," the Russian Embassy spokesman says. "England lacks such legislation, according to British authorities."

Britain's Department of Culture, Media and Sport announced Friday that a law covering the gaps in British law, originally scheduled to go into effect in February 2008, would be rushed into place ahead of the show's scheduled opening. The law is part of the Tribunal Courts and Enforcement Bill 2007, which bolsters protections found in Britain's State Immunity Act of 1978.

'Excessive Politicization'

"On the 7th of January we'll put a law in place so the Russians have a belts-and-braces guarantee that the artwork will be covered," says Department of Culture spokeswoman Fiona Cameron. "The legislation was coming into effect in 2008 anyway, but it would have been a few weeks too late for the Royal Academy exhibition."

The spat is the latest in a string of disputes between the UK and Russia. The diplomatic relationship between the two countries has gotten progressively worse since 2006, when a former KGB agent was poisoned in London. Four Russian diplomats were expelled over the case in July; Russia responded by booting four Brits. Last week, the Kremlin accused the British Council of acting illegally and ordered the educational organization to close two of its three remaining offices in Russia by the end of the year.

Piotrkovsky says this latest back-and-forth isn't about politics. "Sometimes we can see excessive politicization," he told Interfax. "We have always had good relations with Great Britain and it is necessary to maintain them without forgetting that there is legislation that it is necessary to preserve."

At the Royal Academy -- known for blockbuster exhibitions of modern art -- museum officials are hopeful the two countries can work things out. "We're waiting for clarification on everything," Royal Academy spokeswoman Jennifer Francis said Friday. "But we're optimistic the show will go on as planned."

The exhibit's first appearance in Germany went swimmingly, according to museum officials here. Almost 300,000 people have visited since the show opened in Düsseldorf on Sept. 15. The museum is extending its opening hours over the holidays to accommodate latecomers.

The exhibit includes paintings from French and Russian artists. Spanning the years from 1870 to 1925, it traces the influence of French Impressionist masters like Renoir, Chagall, Cezanne and Gaugin on Russian artists. "Russians who lived in Paris collected French art and then brought it back to Russia, where it influenced Russian artists," Schuster says. "It's a very lovely exhibition that shows the interplay between the two cultures."


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