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Russia Cancels U.K. Art Show, Cites Lack of Guarantee

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Bloomberg 19 December 2007
By John Varoli and Farah Nayeri

Dec. 19 (Bloomberg) -- The Russian government canceled an exhibition of artworks from some of the country's major museums that was scheduled to open at London's Royal Academy of Arts on Jan. 26, 2008.

Officials cited the U.K. government's failure, after months of negotiations, to offer a legal guarantee of immunity from third-party confiscation. The exhibition, ``From Russia,'' is sponsored by E.ON AG, Germany's biggest utility, and is currently at Duesseldorf's Museum Kunst Palast through Jan. 6, 2008.

The State Hermitage Museum and the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts were among four Russian museums that said they would lend more than 120 paintings by artists such as Cezanne, Gauguin, Matisse, Kandinsky and Malevich to the Royal Academy.

``The British government, unlike other countries such as the United States, will not offer a legal guarantee that our artworks won't be confiscated as part of a third-party lawsuit,'' said Zinaida Bonami, deputy director of the Pushkin Museum, who is in charge of exhibitions and international relations.

``Our artworks are not owned by the museum itself, but rather they are the property of the Russian state, and this decision was made by the Federal Agency of Culture and Cinematography,'' she said.

State Immunity

The U.K. Department for Culture, Media and Sport said it had not been notified of the Russian galleries' decision not to loan. A spokeswoman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said U.K. Culture Secretary James Purnell wrote to the head of the Russian Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography on Dec. 7 confirming that the artworks would come under the State Immunity Act of 1978.

Under that act, the state and the property of a state are immune from the jurisdiction of U.K. courts, with a few limited exceptions that don't concern the Russian art loans, the spokeswoman said in a telephone conversation.

The U.K. government has underwritten the collection against loss or damage for a value of nearly 900 million pounds ($1.8 billion) under the so-called government indemnity scheme, the DCMS spokeswoman said. That plan is an alternative to costly commercial insurance, and means that the government, not an insurance company, carries the risk.

Earlier, the Royal Academy said it was ``confident'' that the Russia show would open on schedule. ``Preparations for the exhibition are proceeding as planned,'' the London institution said in an e-mailed statement.

Swiss Incident

According to the Pushkin Museum's Bonami, the Russian government fears a repeat of events in November 2005, when 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 Museum said the items 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.''

``These artworks were confiscated then because the Swiss government had not provided the guarantee we now demand from all countries,'' said Bonami. ``This issue is what most concerned Russian government officials when making their decision to cancel the London exhibition.''

Law Demand

Last week, Pushkin Museum Director Irina Antonova said in an interview that she believed the exhibition might merely be postponed for several months to allow the British government enough time to ratify a law that would give artworks immunity from third-party disputes. Bonami said, however, that all negotiations with the U.K. side have ceased.

``When Britain adjusts its law to accepted international norms then we will be happy to send art to London,'' said Bonami. ``Russia is very much interested in expanding cultural relations with London, and we hope this exhibition and others will happen at a future date.''

Russian and British relations have been strained over the past two years because of scandals, such as the murder of former KBG agent Alexander Litvinenko in London in November 2006. The Russian government has refused to hand over former KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi, whom U.K. prosecutors want to put on trial for the radiation poisoning. Lugovoi was voted into the Russian Parliament, the State Duma, during national elections on Dec. 2.

On Dec. 12, Russia said it was closing down the regional offices of the British Council, which functions as the cultural center for the U.K. abroad. The British government has protested the decision.

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