Recently an article ran in the LATimes reporting on LACMA’s entanglement with Russia and the nation’s refusal to send 38 objects previously promised for the upcoming exhibition ‘Gifts of the Sultan: The Arts of Giving at the Islamic Courts’ slated to open on June 5. This diplomatic snafu has already resulted in the cancellation of one exhibition and the indefinite postponement of another. Russia’s reticence to share is punishment for an unfavorable decision reached by the US District Court in Washington on a case regarding texts seized from the Chabad organization during the 1917 Revolution and WWII.
The case, brought six years ago by the Chabad organization against Russia sought the return of a trove of religious texts and manuscripts illegally seized from the Jewish religious group originally founded in Russia in the 1700s. Russia hired counsel and pursued the case through US courts until. LACMA has unwittingly become mired in this international legal and diplomatic quagmire but is more fortunate than other US museums who have had to cancel or postpone exhibitions. LACMA has stated the ‘Sultan’ show will go on without the loans.
Despite assurances by the U.S. State department and ‘very high level’ talks between Russia and Moscow, Russia has put a ban on all art loans to US museums. There is in fact a federal law enacted in the 1960s which prohibits leans or legal claims on artworks loaned to non-profits. One US State department official who spoke to the LATimes anonymously said, “we have offered every reassurance we can … that works of art are safe.” These assurance are not working to placate the Russian government because their ban on loans is a protest against the unfavorable decision. By holding artworks hostage and inconveniencing US museums, the Russians are hoping to achieve through diplomatic channels what they failed to achieve in the US court system. They have now created a stalemate, they will not loan artworks as long as the court decision stands. Unfortunately, the US courts are unlikely to be intimidated into reversing or compromising a decision.
When I read this news about the LACMA show, it reminded me of a similar series of diplomatic disputes over art which occurred while I was studying for my Masters in London in 2007. The traveling exhibition, ‘From Russia with Love,’ which was scheduled to open in January 2008 was put on hold by Russia’s last minute refusal to send the 1 billion pound collection of paintings. On the heals of the assassination of Alexander Livinenko, relations between the nations were strained and some speculated that Moscow was using this opportunity to express it’s displeasure with Britain. After Britain send a personal letter of assurance from culture secretary James Purnell and rushed through an anti-seizure measure which would be enacted three weeks before the exhibition was scheduled to open.
Russian museums hold in their collection innumerable artwork, manuscripts and cultural objects stolen from from private citizens by the Bolsheviks in 1917 and seized by the Nazis during the second world war which they vehemently protect, navigating diplomatic channels to ensure they are not returned to their original owners. Meanwhile Italy, Egypt and Greece have demanded the return of cultural objects illegally looted from tombs and archaeological sites and bought by museums. So far, many of their demands have been met and the Met, the Getty and Louvre to name a few have returned objects. A little ironic?