LACMA will improvise after giving up on withheld art loans from Russia

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The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has bid dasvidaniya to about 30 artworks that Russian authorities had promised as loans to ‘Gifts of the Sultans: The Arts of Giving at the Islamic Courts,’ then withheld. Russia has imposed an embargo on all loans to American museums in a display of its displeasure over a U.S. legal decision that has nothing to do with art or museums.

That has left LACMA curators and exhibit installers to practice the art of improvisation as they rejigger the show’s layout to avert any discernible voids in the presentation when the show opens Sunday with more than 200 other objects from the museum’s own collection or loaned by a wide array of non-Russian sources.

One of the artworks, an 18th-century Turkish tent embroidered in silk and gold that had been a gift to Catherine the Great and now belongs to the State Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg, was to have served as the centerpiece for the show’s largest section. Like its companions from the Hermitage and two other Russian collections, it is being held hostage in a standoff involving the Russian and U.S. governments and Chabad, a prominent branch of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Hasidic movement.

Last year, Chabad won a court victory when a federal judge in Washington ordered Russia to return vast troves of religious books and rabbinic manuscripts seized during the Russian Revolution and World War II. Chabad originated in Russia in the 1700s and was transplanted to the United States during the 20th century.


The Russian government contends that it is not bound by U.S. court decisions concerning what it considers to be its own property.

Consequently, the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences suffered the loss of ‘Treasures from the Hermitage: Russia’s Crown Jewels,’ which was to have opened last month, ‘Treasures from Moscow,’ a show at the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Mass., was shut down in March when orders came for the exhibition to be sent home, and Russia has reneged on loans to the Getty Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art, among others.

LACMA spokeswoman Barbara Pflaumer said Wednesday that she wasn’t sure whether the museum’s efforts to get Russian authorities to change their minds for the Islamic art show had met with a specific nyet, but ‘I don’t think there is a realistic possibility the artworks will be here.’ She said the show’s curator, Linda Komaroff, who heads the museum’s department of Islamic and Middle Eastern art, has worked out a new layout in the Resnick Pavilion’s east galleries to compensate for the lost items, including the ballyhooed tent.

‘I think we’ve done all we could do’ to get the Russians to change their minds, Pflaumer said.

That included seeking and receiving written legal assurances from Chabad that the organization would not attempt to seize hostages of its own by filing a bid to have the loaned artworks held to ensure Russia’s compliance with the court order requiring the return of the religious texts.

Also, as part of what are said to be high-level diplomatic discussions of the situation that have taken place for several months, the U.S. State Department has assured Russia that Chabad could make no such attempt even if it wanted to, because a longstanding U.S. law prohibits seizures of foreign artworks loaned for nonprofit exhibitions.


In Russia-U.S. legal dispute, LACMA stands to lose

Chabad battles Russia for trove of works

-- Mike Boehm