Should we send borrowed art back to Russia?

Harmony Cardenas

The arts desk of FT Weekend is normally a happy little place. We are chatty. We are pally. We make each other cups of tea, laugh at each other’s bad puns. When we point out each other’s gaffes, it is only ever so slightly passive-aggressive.

But now, in our small band, I’m sorry to report that there is discord. Dissent. Russia is at war, and so are we. And the cause is the knotty subject of returning works of art that have been on international loan.

A few days ago, the fabulous Morozov collection, some 200 Impressionist and modern masterpieces which were lent from a number of Russian museums to the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris for a spectacular show, arrived back in Russia. A disgrace, in the view of one of my colleagues — this is clearly morally wrong; they should have been held.

No, no, say I — these works are in public collections in Moscow and St Petersburg and to hold them would only be to punish the ordinary people of Russia.

The west’s policy is to punish them, cries my colleague. It’s war. And their leaders are punishing them already — maybe eventually they’ll do something about it.

A few works have been held back by the French authorities: two belonging to sanctioned oligarchs, and one that will be returned to Ukraine when it’s safe to do so. The others trundled through Belgium and Germany on convoys of trucks and were then ferried to Finland, from where they reached Russia. Each of the 30 lorries apparently carried an insurance value of up to $200mn.

The diplomatic agreements were tortuous too: French authorities had to ensure that every country on the way agreed not to seize the artworks, and classified them as not being “luxury goods” — the Fondation Louis Vuitton is backed by luxury magnate Bernard Arnault.

Quite apart from the back-and-forth negotiations across the FT’s arts desk, there are bigger questions. Of course art is often a luxury of the super-rich, influential oligarchs among them, and — sadly — it probably does have to be treated like yachts and houses and any other valuable holding. But should works of art in public collections be pawns of international politics?

Yes, says my colleague. We have to use any and all weapons to try to affect the course of Russia’s aggression. No, I reply. We have to continue to behave in ways that match the values we’re trying to uphold (though I’m aware how pious that might sound); and to underline that art is not just another branch of luxury goods, another piece of property to be bargained with.

Both of us, naturally, claim the moral high ground here.

Returning loans from Russian museums — works have gone back from Italy, from Japan — has caused ructions since the beginning of the crisis, especially for the conduit Finland. The V&A in London is also in difficulties over treasures in its recent wonderful exhibition of Fabergé eggs, which ended some weeks ago. Some of the Fabergé objects were lent by the Moscow Kremlin Museums, and have been returned. But one of the jewelled eggs was bought in 2004 by the now sanctioned oil and gas mogul Viktor Vekselberg, who later passed its ownership to a company registered in Panama, Lamesa Arts Inc; it is usually housed in his private Fabergé Museum in the glorious Shuvalov Palace in St Petersburg, which is open to the public. The same collection also lent the V&A a gold and enamel box, and both have been retained in Britain.

So this is a tricky one: do those objects count as public art, or as pieces of private wealth? Is their return permitted, under existing rules? Is it ethical? I’m glad to say it’s the UK Treasury and culture ministry who are wrestling with this problem.

Beyond the ethics, there are pragmatic questions. When it comes to loaned items, as opposed to objects held in permanent collections, museums really want to return them. International non-seizure agreements are in place; the museum world and a huge number of private collections operate on a goodwill tit-for-tat of lend and borrow that is essential if we are to have the true luxury value of art — that is, the luxury of actually seeing it, around the world. Break those conventions by refusing a return, even when we passionately disapprove of a particular regime’s actions and policies, and much more is possibly being broken.

Then there’s the nitty-gritty. Who stores the work? Who pays the insurance? (Imagine the premiums on the Morozov collection.) And finally — back to ethics perhaps — who will decide when it can go home again? Even if hostilities in Ukraine ended tomorrow, at what point would Russia be seen as sufficiently worthy or penitent to merit the return of its works of art? That could be a long wait.

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