Britain, seeking Russian art exhibition, to move up law protecting art works

AP 20 December 2007

LONDON (AP) - Britain's culture minister, hoping to persuade Russia to send its paintings to London for a major exhibition, said Thursday he was moving up the effective date of legislation to protect art from seizure.

The exhibition called «From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings 1870-1925» was scheduled to open at The Royal Academy on Jan. 26. But on Wednesday, a Moscow museum official said authorities had canceled it because of fears the art could be seized to settle private legal claims.

On Thursday, despite British assurances that art was protected under British law, Russia's culture agency said the paintings would only be sent if the British Cabinet issued a waiver saying that any British court decision to settle private legal claims would not be implemented while they are in the country.

James Purnell, who heads Britain culture department, then said that a provision of a law approved by Parliament this year and due to come into force in late February, would become effective on or about Jan. 7. The legislation bars seizure of art works loaned on a government-to-government basis, the ministry said.

Purnell said he had received a letter Thursday from Russian authorities setting out their concerns.«In their letter they say that after the adoption of such an act by the relevant U.K. authorities they will be ready to send the exhibition from Russia to London immediately, and I therefore look forward to seeing ///(it) ///in London with very many other people next year,» Purnell said in an interview on British Broadcasting Corp. radio.

Russian culture agency chief Mikhail Shvydkoi said in televised comments Wednesday that descendants of two prominent 19th and early 20th Century Russian art patrons and collectors, Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov, had not ruled out legal action over their claims to the works. Among the works to be shown at the London exhibition were some prominent works from their collections, which were seized by the state after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.

In 2003, Shchukin's grandson, French citizen Andre Marc Delocque-Fourcaud, sued in an unsuccessful bid to remove paintings he claims the Bolsheviks looted from his grandfather in 1918 from the traveling exhibition of Russia's Pushkin museum. Delocque-Fourcaud said 25 artworks including paintings by Picasso, Degas and Van Gogh were stolen from his grandfather and later passed to the museum.

In 2005, a collection of French masterpieces belonging to the Pushkin museum was seized and held in Switzerland over millions of dollars (euros) in alleged debts that a Swiss company claimed was owed to it by Russia. The Swiss government later stepped in and ordered the paintings returned to Russia.

The dispute over the exhibition developed at a time when relations between Russia and Britain have been badly damaged by the case of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned in London last year. Moscow refused to extradite the man wanted by Britain in connection with the slaying.

Purnell had assured Russia in a letter this month that the artworks were covered under the State Immunity Act of 1978. But Shvydkoi said Russian legal experts believed the 1978 act failed to provide sufficient protection for the art. «This act doesn't contain direct norms applicable to assets from countries which aren't signatories to the European Convention on State Immunity,» Shvydkoi said in letters sent Thursday to Purnell and British Ambassador to Moscow Anthony Brenton, according to a statement.

This announcement was followed by Purnell's announcement that the new legal provision would be moved forward.
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