Russia on Loan(s) again

On Feb. 2, 2011, The New York Times reported that Gauguin exhibit at the  National Gallery of Art will not have all the canvas expected. The Metropolitan Museum of Art organizing an exhibition of Cézanne’s famous card player paintings, too might be missing at least one table of players. The shows are suffering from a condition known as “a full-scale diplomatic feud between the United States and Russia.” Supposedly, the Russian State-run museums are canceling long-scheduled loans to American institutions in response to a decision by an American judge in a case involving Jewish religious documents held by Russia.

“The legal dispute centers on the so-called Schneerson Library, a collection of 12,000 books and 50,000 religious documents assembled by the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement over two centuries prior to World War II, and kept since in Russia. The Chabad organization, which is based in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, has been trying to regain possession of the library, saying that it was illegally held by the Soviet authorities after the war. . . .

In 1991 a court in Moscow ordered the library turned over to the Chabad organization; the Soviet Union then collapsed, and the judgment was set aside by the Russian authorities. The Russian government now says it wants to preserve the library for Russian Jews and scholars. . . .

In recent years the organization has taken its case to court in the United States, and on July 30, 2010, Royce C. Lamberth, a federal judge of the United States District Court in Washington, ruled in favor of the Chabad organization, ordering Russia to turn over all Schneerson documents held at the Russian State Library, the Russian State Military Archive and elsewhere. Russian officials, saying that an American court had no jurisdiction, had refused to participate in the proceedings. Judge Lamberth handed down an ex parte decision in favor of the Chabad organisation on [date] which the Russian Foreign Ministry denounced it as a violation of international law. . .

Whether or not “an American court had [a] right to get involved in a case concerning Russian assets on Russian soil” remains to be seen, in the mean time, artworks may become hostages. According to one attorney for the Chabad organization it might ask a court to “confiscate art from Russia as a kind of legal hostage.” The threat is hardly serious because the Federal law, 22 U.S.C. 2459, Immunity from Seizure Act, protects works of cultural significance vetted by the State Department from seizure.

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