Art Crunch Continues in Wake of Chabad Lawsuit

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The Brooklyn-based Chabad group and Russia have been sparring for years over the ownership of a collection of documents confiscated during World War II. But the biggest loser has been art institutions.

Nicolai Fechin's "Ballerina Vera Fokina" appeared at The Museum of Russian Art's exhibition on the artist. Russia prevented several Fechin pieces from appearing. (Courtesy Martin Museum of Art)

Nicolai Fechin’s “Ballerina Vera Fokina” appeared at The Museum of Russian Art’s exhibition on the artist. Russia prevented several Fechin pieces from appearing. (Courtesy Martin Museum of Art)

The lawsuit of Brooklyn-based Jewish organization against Russia has pained art institutions for several years, and Russian threats of a lawsuit against the Library of Congress has furthered the issue.

The Chabad group first brought suit in 2004, claiming ownership of the Schneersohn Library, a collection of documents left in Poland by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn during the Nazi invasion. The ongoing dispute has led to the imposing of fines against Russia by a U.S. District Court in Washington D.C., and the threat of Russian lawsuits against the Library of Congress. But art institutions in both countries have taken the most collateral damage, as Russia ordered a freeze on art loans to the United States, leaving museums in the cold.

During 2010, a U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. ordered Russia to return the documents. Returning the Schneersohn texts would “open up a Pandora’s box,” current Russian President Vladimir Putin has said, declaring that U.S. courts had no jurisdiction over Russia. Russia, claiming fears that U.S. institutions would hold Russian art hostage, ordered a freeze on all art loans to the United States in early 2011.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art and National Gallery of Art were among the first to take a hit, when respective exhibitions on Cézanne and Gaugin debuted  without the planned pieces from Russia. The Metropolitan returned the favor, canceling the transfer of 35 pieces by designer Paul Poiret for an exhibit at the Kremlin. Harold Holzer, spokesperson for the Metropolitan, said at the time that “one-sided” loans would be “unfair.”

Officials for the Metropolitan and the National Gallery did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Such exhibitions take years to put together, and the affected institutions are still struggling to deal with the change in plans more than two years later.

The Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis was short approximately 20 pieces by Russian-American impressionist Nicolai Fechin, according to museum curator Masha Zavialova, for an exhibit that closed in January. The ongoing dispute has forced the museum to alter its approach to planning exhibitions, she said.

“The exhibit had been planned for over a year. There were paintings from Moscow, paintings from St. Petersburg,” she said. “When we plan something now, we have to plan for local sources.”

Zavialova refers to the current situation as the “Cold War of museums,” although she clarified that the Russian government is enforcing the freeze. Russian museums are eager to reestablish the flow of art, she says.

Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the United States District Court imposed a $50,000 a-day fine in January, citing Russia’s failure to adhere to the court’s 2010 ruling. The total fine has surpassed $2.5 million at this point, and Russia shows no indication of acquiescing to it. In response to Lamberth’s ruling, the Russian Foreign Ministry has advised a lawsuit against the Library of Congress over seven books loaned to the library in 1994, which were never returned.

The Library of Congress could not be reached for comment on the possibility of the suit.

The Chabad remains steadfast in its cause. The group had no intentions of preventing the interchange of art between institutions, said,  Seth Gerber, of the Bingham law group, which is representing the organization. He dismissed the possibility of the group capturing foreign art loans as leverage, and called Russia’s stance a “bogus issue.”

“Our clients are not going to withdraw their lawsuit to retrieve sacred patriarchal texts from the Russian government because of a bogus issue,” he said.

Trying to reclaim art held by foreign states has become more popular as nations like Egypt and Greece pressure museums to return artifacts plundered throughout history. Cases argued in American courts have succeeded before. Maria Altmann, a Holocaust refugee from Austria, brought a suit against Germany in 1999, and regained ownership of five Gustav Klimt paintings that were stolen from her family by German invading forces. The collection included “Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” a renowned portrait of Altmann’s aunt.

There are further plans for legal action, Gerber said, but he declined to give details.

Vladimir Putin has suggested housing the documents in the newly-opened Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, but Chabad has discounted the idea. Museum curator Zavialova doesn’t care how the dispute is settled, as long as it’s settled soon.

“We all hope and wait,” she said of art institutions around the country. “We hope that the governments will get together and resolve the issues.” 

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