Russia considering whether to loan paintings to British exhibition

A major exhibition of Russian and French paintings that was to open in London in January was canceled by Russian authorities who fear the art could be seized to settle private legal claims, a museum official said Wednesday, according to the AP report.

But the final decision on whether to lend paintings for the exhibition called “From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings 1870-1925” would be made only on Thursday, a Russian cultural officials said. The Royal Academy of Art in London said the exhibition would be opened as planned.

The academy’s spokesman Johanna Bennett said "The Royal Academy is confident that "From Russia," will open to the public on Jan. 26, 2008 . Preparations for the exhibitions are proceeding as planned."

The time of the exhibition has arisen with the time of tight relations between Russia and Britain. The reason the hot disputes was Russia ’s refusal to extradite the main suspect in Alexander Litvinenko’s killing.

Zinaida Bonami, deputy director of Moscow's Pushkin Fine Arts Museum, said the Russian federal cultural agency notified the museum and three others on Tuesday that it would not issue an export license for the works, including famous paintings by Matisse and Van Gogh. Some of the works, which include renowned Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, 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 that British law does not protect against artworks being seized by law suits or court decisions, she said. The exhibition is currently in Duesseldorf, Germany, where organizers have had no problems.

No specifics about any British claims on Russian artworks were mentioned.

In 2005, a collection of French masterpieces belonging to the Pushkin museum was seized and held in Switzerland over millions of dollars (euros) in alleged 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.

Bonami said she did not know if the decision was politically motivated.

"For us, the most important thing is to look out for the preservation of our works of art," she said. "If anything were to happen to our works, it would be a great tragedy on a personal level."

An official with the Federal Service on Culture and Cinematography Natalia Uvarova said that the final decision on canceling the exhibition would be made on Thursday and depends on Britain ’s guarantees.

"I don't see any sort of political subtext here," she said. "We're following long-established procedures that require a state guarantee for these sorts of exhibitions."

A spokesman for the British Embassy in Moscow could not immediately comment on the dispute.

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 to damage Moscow's global standing.

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