Swiss government orders art seized in debt dispute with Russia

The Swiss government on Wednesday ordered a major collection of French masterpieces to be returned to &to=' target=_blank>Moscow's Pushkin State Art Museum after they were seized as part of a Swiss company's debt dispute with Russia.

The 54 paintings, which include Impressionist and other works dating back to the 17th century, had been on display in a five-month exhibit at the Pierre Gianadda Foundation in Martigny, one of Switzerland's leading art museums.

The works, ranging from 17th century traditional compositions of Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain to the cubism of Pablo Picasso from the early 20th century, have an insured value of US$1 billion (Ђ860 million), Russia's Interfax news agency reported.

Police in the southern Swiss canton of Valais, where the museum is located, confiscated the paintings on the instructions of a bankruptcy court in Geneva.

The government responded within hours, ordering the paintings to be returned to Moscow.

"This decision by the Federal Council (the Cabinet) takes effect immediately," said a Foreign Ministry statement. "An appeal against the ruling is not possible. The competent federal and cantonal authorities are mandated to implement this decision."

Under international law, national cultural assets are protected against confiscation, Paul Seger, a Foreign Ministry official, told a news conference.

The dispute stems from a complaint by the Swiss trading firm Noga, which claims Russia owes it more than US$60 million in unpaid debts from deals in the early 1990s that were part of the U.N.'s oil-for-food program in Iraq.

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