Priceless icons from Moscow’s Andrei Rublyov Museum of Ancient Russian Culture and Art, which are currently on display in the United States, will be brought back to Russia before the exhibition’s official end. Gordon Lankton, the owner of a private gallery in Clinton, where the icons have been displayed since last autumn, has finally consented to shut the exhibition and return the icons to the museum, although for quite a long time he denied that the situation surrounding the icons was force majeure.
The problem is that it is no longer safe for Russian art treasures to be exhibited in the United States because they are not guaranteed legal protection after a U.S. court upheld a lawsuit in the so-called “Schneerson library” case. A vast collection of religious books assembled by Hasidic rabbis in the Russian Empire prior to the First World War, the library was nationalized in the early 20th century and has never ever left Russia. In the 1990s, a New York Jewish community laid claims to what became known as the Schneerson library. Last year, a U.S. court upheld the claims. Moscow protested the ruling as illegal and hampering cultural ties between Russia and the United States. Three leading Russian museums – the Hermitage, the Tretyakov Gallery and the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts – have already refused to take out paintings to America for temporary public display amid fears that they might be impounded. Culture Minister Alexander Avdeyev expressed concern.
The situation is indeed very alarming because hypothetically any Russian art asset unprotected by diplomatic immunity can be seized once it crosses the U.S. border. The court ruling has forced us to suspend our art exhibitions in America. It is our understanding, and that of our American colleagues in the U.S. State Department, that is not normal. We are looking for solutions that would ensure two things: first – the immunity of all Russian cultural values from seizure, and second - return guarantees, which is common practice in the civilized world.
The U.S. State Department official Robert Hilton announced recently that all foreign art treasures exhibited in the U.S., including the Russian icons, were guaranteed immunity under a special bill. But Moscow argues that this is not enough and wants more solid guarantees for which a special intergovernmental agreement is needed. Russian and U.S. experts will hold a series of meetings to prepare this document.
Visitor examining an icon at "Andrei Rublyov. Feat of Icon Painting" exhibition. Photo: RIA Novosti