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Hermitage Won't Send Art to London Without Guarantee From U.K.

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Bloomberg 24 October 2007
By John Varoli and Farah Nayeri

The State Hermitage Museum, Russia's largest repository of art, said it will not send artworks to London for a Royal Academy of Arts exhibition unless the U.K. government guarantees that the works will not be confiscated by local courts on account of any third-party lawsuit.

The Hermitage and State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, together with Moscow's State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and State Tretyakov Gallery, last week said they will lend more than 120 French and Russian paintings by artists such as Cezanne, Gauguin, Matisse, Kandinsky and Malevich to the Royal Academy's ``From Russia'' exhibition (Jan. 26 - April 18).

The U.K. is still in the process of passing legislation that would give art loans immunity from seizure should heirs to the original owners make claims.

``We told Britain a long time ago that our art works will not be able to go to their country if we don't have a guarantee of immunity from confiscation,'' Hermitage Director Mikhail Piotrovsky said after a press conference in St. Petersburg this afternoon. ``As of today, we still don't have such a guarantee.''

Toby Sargent, deputy head of news at the U.K. Department for Culture, Media and Sport, said the British government couldn't provide such a guarantee until the Royal Academy showed that the works' provenance wasn't in question.

Sargent said in a telephone interview that the British government would be ``effectively guaranteeing or assuring safety of those works. We cannot do so until we've been assured that they are not subject to present or future claims.''

Assurance Letter

Sargent read out the wording of the ``letter of assurance'' that would go from the U.K. to the Russian government. It confirms, ``under English law,'' that the works of art loaned for exhibition ``will be immune from any process to enforce a judgment or arbitration award unless the state itself has waived this immunity. This immunity will extend to applications to seize or attach the property in question.''

``The government will use its best endeavours in accordance with the law of England to ensure the safe return of all objects lent,'' according to the letter of assurance.

In an e-mailed response to questions, Royal Academy Chief Executive and Secretary Charles Saumarez Smith said the academy was clarifying the provenance of the works.

In an earlier statement today, the academy reiterated that anti-seizure legislation ``is expected to be introduced in Parliament in the next parliamentary session'' and that, in the meantime, the Royal Academy was ``seeking a letter of comfort'' from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport ``concerning the complex loans'' for the exhibition.

At an Oct. 22 press conference announcing the exhibition, Saumarez Smith said the Royal Academy was receiving the loans ``pending anti-seizure legislation'' and that the exhibition was ``supported by both governments.''

``From Russia'' is sponsored by E.ON AG, Germany's biggest utility. The exhibition is currently taking place at Dusseldorf's Museum Kunst Palast until Jan. 6, 2008.

Less than five percent of the Hermitage collection is on display. The museum is trying to make it more accessible. The collection ranges from archaeological artifacts, such as ancient Greek gold, to Russian Imperial furniture, and masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Matisse.

Piotrovsky said the U.S., France, and many other countries provide guarantees of immunity from confiscation.

Swiss Customs

The issue of art confiscations is being watched by Russia's museum directors. In November 2005, Swiss customs officials impounded 54 French Impressionist and post-Impressionist masterpieces from Moscow's Pushkin Museum.

Trucks loaded with the art were leaving that country after a three-month exhibition at the Pierre Gianadda Foundation in Martigny.

Among the confiscated art were works by Monet, Renoir, Gauguin, Matisse, Cezanne, and Picasso. The Pushkin said the works had been insured for a value of more than $1 billion.

The Swiss customs acted on a local court order based on a lawsuit from Noga, a privately held Swiss company that said the Russian government owed it $680 million since the early 1990s.

The artworks were released later the same day when the Swiss Federal Council, Switzerland's ruling political body, overruled the local court, stating that ``national cultural treasures are public property and are not subject to confiscation.''

To contact the reporters on this story: John Varoli in St. Petersburg at jvaroli@gmail.com ; or Farah Nayeri in London at farahn@bloomberg.net .

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