U.S. to Russia: No Artwork Seizures in Chabad Case

Legal Times 16 June 2011

In enforcing a judgment against the Russian Federation over the return of sacred texts to a Jewish group, the Justice Department filed a notice (PDF) last night that it would not support the seizure of any Russian art or artifacts on loan to U.S. museums.

Expressing fear for the safety of its artifacts in light of the judgment, the Russian government ordered a ban on art loans to the United States and the return of objects already on loan.

Chabad-Lubavitch, the plaintiff in the case, filed several notices last month with U.S. District Court Chief Judge Royce Lamberth that it had no intention of going after Russian art at U.S. museums. Chabad has asked for civil sanctions if the Russian government continues to disobey Lamberth’s order last summer that the texts be returned.

The Justice Department told the court it was weighing possible involvement in the case in April, but at the time didn’t specify a reason. Later filings from Chabad showed that both U.S. State and Justice Department officials were concerned about the Russian Federation’s art ban.

In the statement of interest filed last night, the department repeated its support for the return of the texts, noting that, “Since the early 1990s, the Executive Branch has made extensive diplomatic efforts to help Chabad gain possession of those materials.”

Thanking Chabad’s attorneys for acknowledging that they would not go after Russian art in the U.S., the department wrote that it wanted to make sure any future attachment orders are as specific as possible and rule out any claim to Russian cultural objects.

“If the Russian government continues with these threats about the exchange of artwork, it’s only doing it as a ploy to prevent enforcement of the judgment in our case. It calls the Russian’s bluff on this, which I think is very good,” said Chabad's attorney, Nathan Lewin of Washington's Lewin & Lewin.

Chabad, an orthodox movement within Judaism, wants the Russian government to turn over approximately 12,000 books and manuscripts seized during the Bolshevik Revolution and Russian Civil War in the early 20th century and 25,000 pages of handwritten texts stolen by Nazis during World War II and then taken by Russian soldiers once the war was over.

Lewin's co-counsel, Seth Gerber of Los Angeles’ Bingham McCutchen,said this morning that he was pleased the Justice Department repeated its support for the return of the texts.

“The filing in no way reflects a deviation or change of the U.S. government’s longtime support,” Gerber said. “Chabad has made clear in filings…that Chabad has no intent to pursue any loans of artwork.”

Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller declined to comment on the new filing. Yevgeniy Khorishko, press secretary for the Russian Embassy in Washington, could not immediately be reached for comment. Khorishko had previously said that he expected direct negotiations to begin between the U.S. and his government.
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