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Cessation of Russian Loans: Piotrovsky’s Diatribe and Houston’s Big Hermitage Show

Fabergé Miniatures of the Imperial Coronation Regalia, St. Petersburg, C. Fabergé’s Company. 1900, State Hermitage Museum

As reported last month by the NY TimesCarol Vogel and Clifford Levy, the attempt by an international organization of Orthodox Jews to reclaim books, manuscripts and archival materials held by two Russian public libraries has led to the refusal of Russian museums to send promised loans to U.S. exhibitions.

Vogel and Levy then wrote:

The four shows that stand to suffer in the coming months are “Cézanne’s
Card Players” and “Rooms With a View: The Open Window in the 19th
Century” at the Met, and “Gauguin: Maker of Myth” and “Venice: Canaletto
and His Rivals” at the National Gallery.

But another upcoming show could have more than just a few gaps to fill. “Treasures from the
Hermitage: Russia’s Crown Jewels” is scheduled to open May 20 at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

According to that show’s online description:

Houston will be the only venue for this fascinating and exclusive exhibition, which includes more than 150 stunning objects [including the Fabergé miniatures, above] selected from the Treasure Gallery of the State Hermitage Museum. Many of these objects have never before left Russia—and all may never leave again…

…or may never leave at all. As of this writing, however, tickets for the show are still on sale through the museum’s website, at a hefty $28 for adults, $20 for childen and seniors.

Here’s what Latha Thomas, the Houston museum’s vice president for marketing and communications, told me yesterday when I asked whether the show will indeed go on:

While we have heard and read about the Chabad court case and heard rumors about delays, we do not have any official word from Russia as to whether this will affect our exhibition. We are currently working to open the show as we initially planned.

Maybe she should read (if she hasn’t already) the following comments about the Russian loan embargo by Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the Hermitage. Fittingly titled, “We Speak Different Languages,” these musings are part of Piotrovsky’s rambling, clumsily translated statement on cultural-property issues, posted on the English-language version of his museum’s website (and originally published on Jan. 26 by the newspaper Saint Petersburg Vedomosti):

We believe the fate of these things [the material claimed by the Aguydas Chasidei Chabad of the U.S.] should be decided by a Russian court. A judicial opinion on this case has already been expressed. I mean the claim made in the U.S. A judge in Washington made a decision that the collection belongs to Chabad-Lubavitch community and should be returned to them. The Russian Federation took part in the competition [litigation?] at the beginning but then declared a protest believing the decision violates the international law which is above the Washington judge[‘s] decision.

Russia is supposed to have to return what it has on its territory. How can the “Schneerson collection” be wangled? We know what is done in such cases: The state property—planes, ships, paintings—is arrested. The government begins negotiations with the U.S. showing its concern about safety of the Russian property on the U.S. territory. In response they say there is a federal law in the U.S. on exemption from seizure but it is impossible to guarantee it because courts are independent in a democratic state. They don’t want to provide guarantees.

Consequently, the Russian government won’t issue permissions for exhibitions in the U.S. [emphasis added]. The Hermitage planned a few of them for this year. In February paintings by Cézanne, Gauguin, Canaletto were to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery, Washington D.C., from London. However, they are now going back home. I talked to directors of American museums and I said to them, I am sorry but you have to go to the State Department. The problem has to be solved. The year 2013 was declared the year of Russia and the U.S. Now the established cultural relations are under threat.

American museum officials and diplomats have been trying to convince Russian officials that our country’s immunity-from-seizure protection will insure the return of their loaned works. Concerns about confiscation of loans also almost scotched a 2008 Russian loan show, “From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings 1870-1925,” at the Royal Academy, London. But after new British legislation guaranteed the return Russian loans, that show ultimately did take place.

The current fracas began when the Aguydas Chasidei Chabad of the U.S. sued the Russian
Federation in U.S. courts for the return of two huge troves of religious books, manuscripts and archival materials, one of which was said to have been seized by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution, the other by the Nazis in Poland.

Russia ultimately withdrew from the U.S. legal process (while the case was on appeal), asserting that our country’s courts had no authority over property owned by and located in Russia. The Russians now fear that the Chabad organization might retaliate (as, according to the above-linked NY Times report, the organization’s lawyer has suggested it might do) by attempting to seize Russian property located in the U.S.

Piotrovsky concluded his confusing diatribe as follows:

We do what is required by today’s spiritual development of Russia.
Otherwise, there is a question—if you restore justice, why don’t you
give valuables to Hasidim?

I’m not quite sure what he was driving at there, but denigrating Orthodox Jews seems to be part of the subtext.

[For legal background on the Chabad case, I am indebted to the “Litigation Update” presented by Stephen Clark, general counsel of the J.Paul Getty Trust, to attendees at this week’s course on Legal Issues in Museum Administration, offered in Washington by the American Law Institute-American Bar Association.]

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