- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 20, 2007

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian authorities canceled a major exhibition of French and Russian paintings set to open in London in January, fearing authorities could seize the art to settle private legal claims, a Russian museum official said yesterday.

A Russian cultural official, however, said a final decision on lending paintings for the exhibition, called “From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings 1870-1925,” would be made today.

The head of Russia’s federal cultural agency, Mikhail Shvydkoi, said descendants of two prominent 19th- and early 20th-century Russian art patrons and collectors have not ruled out legal action. It was not immediately clear where those descendants live.

Britain’s cultural agency said it assured Russia that the works — which include renowned Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings — were protected under British law. London’s Royal Academy of Arts initially expressed confidence that its exhibit would open on schedule, but later released a more guarded statement.

“The Royal Academy of Arts has not received any official notification regarding the status of the exhibition and is seeking clarification with the Russian Ministry of Culture,” museum spokeswoman Johanna Bennett said.

The uncertainty about the exhibition has arisen at a time when relations between Russia and Britain have been badly damaged by the case of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who was fatally poisoned in London last year. Moscow refused to extradite the man wanted by Britain in connection with the killing.

Earlier this month, Russia ordered a British cultural organization to suspend all its operations outside Moscow at the beginning of 2008, accusing it of operating illegally — a decision Britain’s foreign secretary said threatened Moscow’s global standing.

Zinaida Bonami, deputy director of Moscow’s Pushkin Fine Arts Museum, said the Russian federal cultural agency notified the museum and three others Tuesday it would not issue an export license for the works, including paintings by Matisse and Van Gogh. Some of the works have rarely been seen outside Russia.

The State Hermitage museum, the Russian Museum and the Tretyakov gallery were also denied licenses, she said.

The agency explained its refusal, saying British law does not protect against artworks being seized by lawsuits or court decisions, she said. The exhibition is currently in Dusseldorf, Germany, where organizers have had no problems.

In 2005, a collection of French masterpieces belonging to the Pushkin museum was seized and held in Switzerland over millions of dollars in purported debts that a Swiss company claimed was owed to it by Russia. The Swiss government later stepped in and ordered the paintings returned to Russia.

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