The Guardian 25 October 2007
Luke Harding and Charlotte Higgins · Possible legal action may scupper RA exhibition
· Demand for guarantee before lending artworks
The director of Russia's Pushkin museum said yesterday she would not lend any pictures to Britain for a forthcoming Royal Academy exhibition unless she received "absolute guarantees" that they would not be the subject of legal action in the UK. Irina Antanova said that 23 exhibits from the Pushkin which were due to be shown in London, together with 100 other masterpieces from Russia's four major museums, might not be sent to Britain.
"None of our paintings will be sent to the UK unless the British government provides us with absolute guarantees of their return," she said.
Her comments appear to raise doubts as to whether this extraordinary exhibition of avant-garde Russian and French art - most of it never seen before in Britain - will take place.
The Royal Academy was planning to hold the show in late January.
But the directors of Russia's four major state museums - the Pushkin and Tretyakov galleries in Moscow, and the Hermitage and Russian museums in St Petersburg - said yesterday they were worried that the works might be impounded by British courts.
Much of the show, including Matisse's stunning Dance (II), comprises paintings once owned by Sergei Shchukin, one of tsarist Russia's most prominent collectors. His grandson, Andre-Marc Delocque-Fourcaud, has in the past lodged unsuccessful legal claims to the works, which were nationalised after the revolution. The problem stems from the fact that Britain's "immunity from seizure" legislation will not receive royal consent until after the show has opened.
That legislation would protect works from being impounded by courts either in the case of a financial claim being made against the Russian state, or in the case of claims to the works from heirs of their pre-1917 owners.
The Royal Academy is requesting that the British government send a "letter of comfort" reassuring the Russian lenders it will do everything in its power within British law to safeguard the works. However, such a letter has not yet been provided, because the academy has yet to complete "due diligence" checks on the provenance of the works it intends to borrow.
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport said yesterday it would issue a letter only if it were satisfied "there were no future or outstanding claims on the paintings", according to a spokesman. "We would expect museums to be particularly meticulous in examining objects which are the subject of unresolved claims elsewhere, and to reject any item if there is any suspicion about it."
However, a "letter of comfort" may not be enough to satisfy Russia's bureaucrats, according to Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the Hermitage museum.
It would have no legal force in current British law, and as such would not carry the "absolute guarantee" demanded by Ms Antanova.
"It's for the lawyers to decide," he said. He added that Britain's current cool political relations with Russia should not affect museum loans. "Culture is not politics. There is much more goodwill. We will find a solution," he said. http://arts.guardian.co.uk/art/news/story/0,,2198545,00.html