Archive Dispute Derails Russian Art Loans to U.S.

New York Times 3 February 2011
By Carol Vogel and Clifford J Levy

Several paintings from Gauguin’s Tahitian period will probably be missing from a major exhibition of his work at the National Gallery of Art in Washington when it opens this month, as will a canvas in that museum’s coming show on the Venetian painter Canaletto and his rivals. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art a small but important exhibition of Cézanne’s famous card player paintings, opening next week, will almost surely be short one.
These and other probable absences from blockbuster shows this year stem from an obscure legal dispute that has turned into a full-scale diplomatic feud between the United States and Russia.
State-run Russian museums, including the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, are canceling long-scheduled loans to American institutions in response to a decision by an American judge in a case involving Jewish religious documents held by Russia.
The ban is highly unusual. For decades international loans have been the lifeblood of large and lucrative shows, and exchanges between American and Russian institutions have been common. The Met alone has borrowed works from Russian institutions for about 40 shows since 1990. But now, like the National Gallery, it is scrambling to fill holes in heavily promoted exhibitions.
“We are all caught up in a political situation that is not of our making,” said Thomas P. Campbell, director of the Met.
Diplomats in Washington and Moscow have been seeking to negotiate an agreement to pave the way for the loans but have so far been unsuccessful.
The legal dispute centers on the so-called Schneerson Library, a collection of 12,000 books and 50,000 religious documents assembled by the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement over two centuries prior to World War II, and kept since in Russia.
For decades the Chabad organization, which is based in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, has been trying to regain possession of the library, saying that it was illegally held by the Soviet authorities after the war.
In 1991 a court in Moscow ordered the library turned over to the Chabad organization; the Soviet Union then collapsed, and the judgment was set aside by the Russian authorities. The Russian government now says it wants to preserve the library for Russian Jews and scholars.
In recent years the organization has taken its case to court in the United States, and on July 30, 2010, Royce C. Lamberth, a federal judge of the United States District Court in Washington, ruled in favor of the Chabad organization, ordering Russia to turn over all Schneerson documents held at the Russian State Library, the Russian State Military Archive and elsewhere.
Russian officials, saying that an American court had no jurisdiction, had refused to participate in the proceedings. And after Judge Lamberth’s decision, the Russian Foreign Ministry denounced it as a violation of international law. The ministry said an American court had no right to get involved in a case concerning Russian assets on Russian soil.
Russian cultural officials reacted more slowly, but by autumn they began warning Russia’s state-controlled museums that any artwork lent to the United States was at risk of being seized by the American authorities to force Russia to abide by the decision.
In an interview on Monday a lawyer for the Chabad organization confirmed that it might ask a court to confiscate art from Russia as a kind of legal hostage.
American diplomats have sought in recent weeks to convince the Russian government that under American law art from Russian museums on loan in the United States was immune from seizure. But Russian officials have remained unconvinced and say they want more legal assurances before the loans resume.
The dispute seems to have touched a nerve in Moscow, where the authorities have been highly sensitive since Soviet times to what they perceive as meddling in their internal affairs by other governments.
“This collection in the Russian Library has never left the borders of Russia,” the culture minister, Aleksandr Avdeyev, said in January on the Echo of Moscow radio station. “It is located here legally, and we are the owners.”
“We have undertaken all the judicial requirements to explain to the court and to the American community group that the issue, my friends, is international law, rather than domestic American law,” Mr. Avdeyev said. “Under international law there is state jurisdiction, and if you want to sue, fine, sue us on Russian territory.”
David Siefkin, a spokesman for the United States Embassy in Moscow, said American diplomats believed that an arrangement could be worked out to allow for the art exchanges.
“We’ve reassured the Russians that, for the last 45 years, a U.S. statute has granted immunity from judicial process for works on loan from foreign countries,” Mr. Siefkin said. “For 45 years all such artwork, including Russian art, has been safely returned.”
But Russian officials and museum executives said they wanted the American government to offer new, more stringent legal protections. They said the decision by Judge Lamberth demonstrated a kind of judicial overreaching in American courts that might also lead to art from Russia being seized. Until such protections are put in place, no art will be lent, they said.
“The United States will not give us absolute guarantees that our works are going to be returned,” said Larisa A. Korabelnikova, a spokeswoman for the Hermitage. “So for now we are refraining from sending them. You want to see these exhibits, and we would really would like to show them to you. It is just a very unpleasant situation.”
The four shows that stand to suffer in the coming months are “Cézanne’s Card Players” and “Rooms With a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century” at the Met, and “Gauguin: Maker of Myth” and “Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals” at the National Gallery. Earl A. Powell III, the director of the National Gallery, said that he too had been trying to allay the Russians’ fears.
“We’ve been at it for about three weeks now, talking to our colleagues in Russia so they clearly understand that the U.S. seizure from immunity does work,” Mr. Powell said. “It’s frustrating.”
Officials from the Chabad organization spoke of frustration too. Marshall Grossman, a lawyer representing the organization, said it had gone to the American courts because it could not receive a fair hearing in Russian ones.
The documents, he said, are a precious collection of books and manuscripts written by seven generations of Chabad leaders, including most recently Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, for whom the collection is named.
“They tell the philosophy, the laws, the customs and the cultures of the Chabad branch of Orthodox Judaism,” Mr. Grossman explained.
For decades, he said, “these documents sat boxed up and they were of no interest to the Russians. They were looted by the Nazis and taken into Poland during World War II. The Russians seized these writings from the Nazis. They warehoused them in the basements of museums and military archives.”
Mr. Grossman criticized the Russian authorities for refusing to lend the promised artworks. “This is an absurd position,” he said. “It is a self-destructive act which harms itself and art lovers all over the United States.”
But when asked whether he would consider trying to seize some of the art, he said, “Chabad will exercise every remedy under the law in order to enforce the judgment. With no exceptions.”
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