LOS ANGELES - The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is caught in the middle of a legal and diplomatic dispute that has prompted Russian authorities to ban art loans to U.S. museums because of an American court decision in favor of the Jewish religious group Chabad.
The Russian cultural ban already has aborted one U.S. museum exhibition, forced the indefinite postponement of another, and could prevent the museum from showing 38 artworks in a major exhibition on Islamic art set to open Sunday.
Russia's actions are the result of a ruling in a U.S. District Court last summer that Russia must restore a trove of religious books and manuscripts to Chabad, a branch of the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic movement. Despite a U.S. law and diplomatic assurances to the contrary, Russian officials have said they fear art shipped to American museums could be seized as collateral.
LACMA spokeswoman Barbara Pflaumer said Tuesday that she could not comment on LACMA's efforts to assuage the Russians in hopes of securing the artworks; the situation "is incredibly fragile and we are doing our very best not to make waves," she said, adding that "Gifts of the Sultan: The Arts of Giving at the Islamic Courts" will take place with or without the pieces from Russia.
The ban has affected other prestigious art institutions. Four paintings that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York had expected for a recent Cezanne exhibition and a current one on 19th-century art were withheld by Russia, spokesman Harold Holzer said. The museum has warned Russian museums that it won't send costumes for a planned exhibition on French fashion designer Paul Poiret unless the ban is lifted.
In March, Russian authorities insisted that the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Mass., pack up its "Treasures From Moscow" show, which had been on display since October, and send the works home four months before the scheduled closing.
The Houston Museum of Natural Science had planned to open "Treasures From the Hermitage: Russia's Crown Jewels" last Friday; it has been postponed indefinitely.
Attempts last week to reach a Russian Embassy spokesman were unsuccessful.
However, a U.S. State Department official said last Wednesday that in "very high level" diplomatic discussions in Washington and Moscow over the last few months, "we have offered every reassurance we can ... that works of art are safe" under a 1960s federal law that prohibits legal claims on artworks loaned to nonprofit cultural institutions in the United States. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivities involved, said the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Menil Collection in Houston also had been affected. The official said the State Department continued to seek Russia's compliance with the ruling in the Chabad case.
The suit originated in Los Angeles in 2004, where Chabad, which began in Russia during the 1700s, has an office. Last July, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth ended the nearly-six-year court proceeding by ordering Russia to return 12,000 books and manuscripts and 25,000 pages of rabbinic writings that are known as the Schneerson Collection. The sacred texts had been seized during the Russian Revolution and World War II.
Chabad first sought their return in 1990. Russia contested the legal claim, arguing it should be dismissed because U.S. courts lack authority over the Russian government's property. But in 2008, a federal appeals court found otherwise, and the Russians responded by turning their back on the case in protest.
Seth Gerber, a Los Angeles attorney for Chabad, said Tuesday that LACMA recently asked Chabad to make it clear to the Russians that it had no intention of trying to seize loaned artworks to gain leverage for the return of its own disputed texts.
Gerber said Chabad was happy to comply. Chabad doesn't want collateral or compensation, Gerber said; nothing but the return of its books and writings will do.
A legal stipulation, signed by attorneys for Chabad and LACMA and filed last week with the U.S. District Court in Washington, says "Chabad does not seek to disrupt in any manner the nonprofit exchange of art and cultural objects between the Russian and American people, which is fully protected by the law of the United States."
Also filed was a list of 38 loans arranged for the exhibition from three Russian institutions. Most of the works originally were from Turkey and Iran; they date from the 11th century to the early 1800s.
"The thesis of the show is about diplomatic gift giving," noted LACMA's Pflaumer, "so it's ironic we're in this situation."