Authorities say Russian art, seized by Finns, should go home

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The Finnish Foreign Ministry said on Friday it had authorized the return of three shipments of Russian art that had been loaned to museums and galleries but had been seized by Finnish customs officers on their way back to Russia. .

The paintings and sculptures, valued at 42 million euros ($46 million), had been loaned by Russian museums to Italian and Japanese institutions. They were seized last weekend at Vaalimaa, a Finnish border post, on suspicion of breaching European Union sanctions imposed following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Hanni Hyvärinen, spokesperson for the Finnish Foreign Ministry, said in a telephone interview that the decision was taken in conjunction with European Union authorities. In a statementthe ministry said the union planned to exempt certain cultural objects from the sanctions.

“The legislative changes will come into force on April 9, 2022, and these changes will include the possibility for member states to issue permits for the export or any other transfer of cultural objects that are part of official cultural cooperation to Russia,” says the press release. The European Union said on Friday it was changing existing rules to allow an exemption for “cultural goods that are loaned in the context of formal cultural cooperation with Russia”. She did not specify why these cultural goods were exempted.

Jacob Kirkegaard, senior researcher at the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund research group, said: “Often under these kinds of sanctions cultural property is exempted because it is non-monetary and not directly related to the ‘war effort. ”

The seizure had raised important questions about how Europe could handle the return of art on loan from Russian museums, which for decades sent some of the world’s greatest art to exhibitions that provided Western audiences a glimpse of cultural treasures that rarely travel.

More recently, works of art from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and other Russian institutions, for example, have been exhibited in museums in Paris, London and Rome.

Proponents of cultural exchanges as bridge-building exercises had hoped that officials would abide by international agreements that govern such loans. But other analysts have said art closely associated with the Russian state or those sanctioned could be legitimate targets of sanctions aimed at isolating Russia for a war that has targeted civilians and devastated cities.

Hyvärinen could not confirm whether the art had already left Finland.

Russian Culture Minister Olga Lyubimova posted on the Telegram messaging app that European authorities had “clarified that exhibits that have participated in European exhibitions do not fall under the sanctions list.”

She said the works had been shown at two exhibitions in Italy – in Milan and Udine – and featured works from the collections of the State Hermitage and the reserves of the museums of Tsarskoye Selo, Pavlovsk and Gatchina; the State Tretyakov Gallery; and the Eastern State Museum.

The works exhibited at the Chiba City Museum in Japan were from the Pushkin National Museum of Fine Arts. Lyubimova said Russian authorities had already started organizing the return of the collections.

The long-term impact of the war on collaborations between Russian and European museums is still unclear.

Since 2011, Russian state museums have refused to loan works of art to museums in the United States, fearing they could be confiscated, and some European art scholars feared a similar freeze could occur. henceforth between the Russian museums and those of Western Europe.

The governments of Austria, Britain, the Netherlands and Spain have already asked cultural organizations not to collaborate with Russian state museums, even though they have been planning exhibitions with them for years. Russia has also stopped some international collaborations.

Thomas C. Danziger, an art market lawyer who advises on international lending, said the release of the artworks in Finland has not assuaged his concerns about a chilling effect on lending.

“The underlying basis of international art loans is trust in your counterparty,” he said. “The seizure of these works – even if they have been published – affects the international art world’s confidence in this system.” He said “the slightest chance that an artwork might not be returned by the borrower would be enough to kill many – if not most – potential international loans”.

Mr. Kirkegaard said that since the art can have great symbolic value, European authorities may have decided that keeping the artworks was not worth the potential propaganda value for President Vladimir V. Putin. , since the seizure could “play into its narrative that it’s really about the West wanting to destroy Russia.

After customs officials halted work at the border, Finnish authorities suggested the seizures were justified because the works of art could qualify as “luxury goods” – a category the EU recently included in the penalties. But analysts said this category of penalties was likely not intended to cover works of art owned by museums.

Daniel Fried, a former State Department official who coordinated sanctions policy under the Obama administration, said art crossing borders could be seized under European sanctions rules if it belonged to an oligarch or to another person or entity on the Sanctions List.

But even if works of art are eligible for sanctions, under current European Union rules they would only be subject to an “asset freeze” – not confiscation. “You no longer have access to it,” said Jonathan Hackenbroich, policy officer at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.

In the same way that Western authorities have recently seized the yachts and other property of the oligarchs, there would be no transfer of ownership of the art and it would still belong to the original owners, to be returned to them if the sanctions were lifted.

Alex Marshall contributed reporting.

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