How Chabad triggered a superpower art war

By Paul Berger, February 10, 2011
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Dispute: This 1730 painting of the Doge’s Palace in Venice by Canaletto is one of the works now subject to the Russian ban on art loans to America

Dispute: This 1730 painting of the Doge’s Palace in Venice by Canaletto is one of the works now subject to the Russian ban on art loans to America

Russia has halted the loan of artworks to major American museums because of a row between the Russian government and Chabad.

Works by Gauguin, Cézanne and Canaletto will be missing from exhibitions opening this month at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, and at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Russian officials ordered state-run museums, such as the State Hermitage Museum and the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, not to release the works for fear they may be confiscated by US courts.

The lending freeze is the latest incident in a decades-long battle by Chabad to retrieve the Schneerson Library - a collection of 12,000 books and 50,000 documents - currently held in Russia.

The library includes manuscripts and religious texts collected by successive Lubavitch rebbes. Some date back 300 years to the time of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism.

A large part of the collection was seized in Moscow after the Russian Revolution. More documents were taken by the Nazis in Poland during the Second World War and then confiscated by Soviet troops, who carried them back to Russia.

The collection was believed lost until it was discovered among the Russian State Library's collection of Hebrew and Yiddish books in the 1980s.

In the decade that followed, Chabad made a number of attempts to retrieve the library, both via Russian courts and appeals made by presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton.

After these efforts failed, Chabad launched a lawsuit in the US, in 2004.

Last year, a federal judge ruled that the library had to be returned to Chabad. But the Russian government refused to recognise the court's
ruling.

The Russian culture minister, Aleksandr Avdeyev, maintains that the collection belongs to Russia.

Meanwhile, the US government has sought to allay Russian fears, saying that it is impossible for Russian artworks to be seized.

But Nathan Lewin, a lawyer who represents Chabad, said the Brooklyn-based organisation would use "any means permissible" to force Russia to comply with the US court.

"If the Russians are concerned about the art they send to America," said Mr Lewin, "I am happy they are concerned. If they comply, they wont have to be concerned." As a result, the Russian government has warned its museums not to send works to America.

A spokesman for the National Gallery of Art said the museum was only notified three weeks ago that it would not receive six works by Gauguin for an exhibition that opens on February 27.

    Last updated: 12:41pm, February 10 2011