Officials say Russian art confiscated from Finns should be returned home

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

The paintings and sculptures, worth 42 million euros, were loaned by Russian museums to institutions in Italy and Japan. she were confiscated at Vaalimaa, a Finnish border crossing point, last weekend on suspicion of violating European Union sanctions imposed after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Hanni Hyvärinen, a spokeswoman for the Finnish Foreign Ministry, said in a telephone interview that the decision was made in cooperation with European Union authorities. in one Explanationthe ministry said the union plans to exempt certain cultural assets from sanctions.

“Legal changes will come into effect on April 9, 2022, and these changes include the possibility for member states to issue licenses for the export or other transfer to Russia of cultural goods that are part of official cultural cooperation,” the statement said . The European Union said on Friday it was changing existing rules to allow an exception for “cultural objects loaned out as part of formal cultural cooperation with Russia.” It was not said why such cultural objects were excluded.

Jacob Kirkegaard, senior fellow in the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund research group, said: “Cultural assets are often exempt from these types of sanctions because they have no monetary value and are not directly related to the war effort. ”

The seizure had raised significant questions about how Europe might deal with the return of loans from Russian museums, which for decades have sent some of the world’s greatest works of art to exhibitions that offer Western audiences glimpses of cultural treasures that rarely travel.

LastFor example, art from the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and other Russian institutions has been exhibited in museums in Paris, London and Rome.

Supporters of bridging cultural exchanges had hoped officials would comply with international agreements governing such loans. However, other analysts said art closely associated with the Russian state or sanctioned individuals could be legitimate targets of sanctions aimed at isolating Russia for a war targeted civilians and devastated cities.

Hyvärinen could not confirm whether art had already left Finland.

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

She said the artworks were shown at two exhibitions in Italy – in Milan and Udine – and featured works from collections of the State Hermitage Museum and the Tsarskoye Selo, Pavlovsk and Gatchina Museum Reserves; the State Tretyakov Gallery; and the State Museum of the East.

The works exhibited in the Chiba City Museum in Japan came from the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts. Lyubimova said that Russian authorities have already started organizing the return of the collections.

The long-term effects of the war on cooperation between Russian and European museums are still unclear.

Since 2011 Russian State Museums have refused to lend works of art to museums in the United Statesbecause they feared they might be confiscated, and some European art scholars feared that there might now be a similar freeze between Russian museums and those in Western Europe.

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

Thomas C. Danziger, an art market attorney who advises on international loans, said the release of the artworks in Finland hasn’t allayed his fears about a deterrent effect on loans.

“The underlying basis for international loans of artworks is trust in your counterparty,” he said. “The confiscation of these works – even though they have been declassified – affects the international art world’s confidence in this system.” He said that “even the slightest risk of a work of art not being returned by the borrower would be enough to save many – if not the most – to kill potential international loans.”

Mr Kirkegaard said that since 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, as the confiscation would “make his narrative what it is really about.” , could influence the West wants to destroy Russia.”

After customs officials halted work at the border, Finnish authorities suggested the confiscations were justified because the artworks could be considered “luxury goods” – a category the EU recently included in sanctions. However, analysts said this category of sanctions is unlikely to apply to museum-owned art.

Daniel Fried, a former State Department official who coordinated sanctions policy during the Obama administration, said cross-border art can be confiscated under European sanctions rules if it is in the private possession of an oligarch or another person or entity on the sanctions list.

But even if artworks are eligible for sanctions, under current European Union rules they would only be subject to an “asset freeze” – not seizure. “You no longer have access to it,” says Jonathan Hackenbroich, Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.

Just as Western authorities recently confiscated the oligarchs’ yachts and other belongings, 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 sanctions were lifted.

Alex Marshall contributed to the coverage.

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