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December 31, 2007

UK acts to open way for Russian art exhibition


December 31, 2007

LONDON: Britain said on Sunday it hoped a landmark exhibition of Russian art would go ahead in London after the government provided “immunity from seizure” so the works would not be confiscated.

Roskultura, Russia’s culture agency, had said it was concerned the art could be seized by courts acting for descendants of people who owned the paintings before they were confiscated after the 1917 Russian revolution.

And Russia said this month it was scrapping plans to loan the pieces by Van Gogh and Matisse to Britain for the exhibition at London’s Royal Academy of Arts, adding a new irritant in fraught diplomatic relations between Moscow and London.

Moscow welcomed Britain’s move but said it would need to officially confirm the legal changes had been made before allowing the art to travel. British Culture Secretary James Purnell has made an order bringing new “immunity from seizure” legislation into force from Monday, the government said. Britain had originally said existing legislation provided sufficient safeguards.

“I hope that bringing forward this further legislation will see the great works in the ‘From Russia’ exhibition open at the Royal Academy this January,” Purnell said in a statement.

However, a British government spokesman said he could not say “with 100 per cent certainty” the exhibition would go ahead.

The new legislation, passed this year and originally due to be implemented in late February or March 2008, provides immunity from seizure for cultural objects lent from abroad for exhibitions in Britain.

Charles Saumarez Smith, the Royal Academy’s chief executive, said he expected the Russian culture agency to approve the loans when it reopens on Jan 8, in time for the works to be shipped to London from Germany where they are now displayed.

Roskultura was not available for comment. But RosSvyaz Okhran Kultura, a government body which decides on

allowing artworks to travel outside Russia after consulting with Roskultura, said a quick decision was possible.

“If these legal changes are taking place indeed, then it is very positive. We will wait for the documents to arrive and then a decision can be taken quickly,” said Yevgeny Strelchik, adviser to the head of RosSvyaz Okhran Kultura.

Relations between London and Moscow have deteriorated since the poisoning murder in London last year of Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko and some diplomats have said privately the problems with the exhibition could be linked to this dispute.

Russia is due to send 120 artworks to London for the “From Russia: French and Russian Art Masterpieces of 1870-1925 “exhibition scheduled to open on Jan 26.

It is the second row over cultural relations between London and Moscow this month.

Russia on Dec 12 ordered the British government’s cultural arm, the British Council, to

halt its work in two Russian cities, citing problems with their legal status. Britain reacted angrily and refused to close the offices.

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