Russia embargoes art meant for London exhibit

19th December 2007, Comments 0 comments

A diplomatic row between Russia and Britain spilled over into the art world when Moscow cancelled a blockbuster exhibition set for London's Royal Academy of Arts next month.

19 December 2007

Moscow (dpa) - A diplomatic row between Russia and Britain spilled over into the art world Wednesday when Moscow cancelled a blockbuster exhibition set for London's Royal Academy of Arts next month.

The exhibit of 120 paintings from Russian state galleries featuring works by Van Gogh, Matisse and Kandinsky, currently hanging in Germany, would not go ahead because Britain could not guarantee the art would not be seized, Russia's federal agency for culture said Wednesday.

The decision is the latest in worsening Anglo-Russian relations since the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko in London which culminated in a tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats in May.

Commenting on Russia's decision Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the plunge in relations was "regrettable."

"Trade and business once had a very good self-immunity ... but we are not living through the best time in relations," he said.

Tensions flared up last week when Moscow ordered the closure of nine offices of the British Council, which promotes British culture abroad, in retribution.

Curators at the Pushkin museum and State Tretyakov Gallery said Wednesday that they had received abrupt notice cancelling their temporary export licenses for the works in question.

"We simply received a very short letter from the ministry of culture that read the guarantee given by the British side was not judged sufficient," Chief Conservator at the State Tretyakov Gallery Ekaterina Selezneva told DPA.

Many of the Russian and French masterpieces in the exhibit, nationalised after the Russian Revolution of 1917, are politically sensitive and have come under private legal claims from collectors' heirs.

Britain has offered assurances of their security, in the form of a personal letter from Prime Minister Gordon Brown to President Vladimir Putin.

But Peskov reiterated that Russia pulled their pieces because they would "not be exempted to legal attacks by British companies or individuals endangering their return."

The star of the exhibit that explores links between French and Russian impressionist art is Matisse's La Dance, which was abruptly sent back from a previous trip abroad after the descendants of Sergei Shukin, an eminent pre-revolutionary art collector, laid legal claim to the work.

In 2005, Russia declared an embargo on sending art abroad when 55 of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts' paintings were impounded in a Swiss company's financial claims against the Russian state.

Recalling the Geneva case, Selezneva said: "We want to steer clear of such eventualities."

The Royal Academy of Arts, meanwhile, had not been informed of Moscow's decision.

A spokeswoman for the British museum said they were "seeking clarification" and preparations were still underway for the exhibit scheduled to begin January 26.

The Royal Academy expected thousands of visitors to the exhibit, From Russia: French and Russian chef d'oeuvres 1870-1925.

It was the first time that many of the works, by Renoir, Cezanne and Gaugin as well as Chagall, Malevich and Kandinsky, were to be seen outside Russia.

A spokeswoman from Russia's federal agency of culture Natalia Uvarova said an ultimatum had been given to the British to provide a fuller guarantee by Thursday morning or the 120 pieces would be whisked back to the Russian state museums.

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