Chabad court victory sparks Russia-U.S. art war

A decades-long dispute between Russia and Chabad over ownership of holy texts collected for centuries by influential rabbis and seized by the Soviet Union has jolted the U.S. art world, threatening an end to major cultural loans between the two countries.

Russia has already frozen art loans to major American institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Houston Museum of Natural Science, fearing that its cultural property could be seized after Chabad-Lubavitch won a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in 2010 compelling the return of its texts.

The Met — and possibly other major lending institutions — are weighing whether to discontinue loans of cultural property to Russia.

Faberge Miniatures of the Imperial Coronation Regalia, from 1900 St. Petersburg, Russia are an example of the works of art that the Russian government has refused to loan to American museums. photo/ap/museum of russian icons

The issue has become so important to relations between the United States and Russia that the Justice Department has signaled in court papers that soon it may weigh in on the legal case — which the Russians pulled out of in 2009, citing sovereign immunity.

The State Department has worked to support Chabad’s campaign to reclaim its sacred texts since the 1990s.

Chabad, based in Brooklyn, has spent decades trying to reclaim the trove of thousands of religious books, manuscripts and handwritten documents, known as the Schneerson Collection. Some of the documents were looted by the Nazis in 1939 and then taken by the Red Army to the Soviet Union in 1945 as “trophy” documents.

Collected since 1772 by the leaders of the movement, the revered religious papers include Chabad’s core teachings and traditions.

Chabad won the right to reclaim the sacred texts from a Soviet court in 1991, but after the collapse of the USSR, the new Russian authorities threw out the judgment. Russian officials argue that Chabad has no ownership rights over the collection and that the case belongs in Russian courts.

Cultural objects lent from foreign countries are protected from legal claims under U.S. law, as long as they are deemed to be “in the national interest” and “of cultural significance” by the State Department — which is the case in major exhibitions.

Seth Gerber of Bingham McCutchen, an attorney for Chabad, said the group had no plans to ask the U.S. court to seize Russian cultural property.

“Chabad will not seek to enforce its judgment by attaching or executing against any art or object of cultural significance which is immune from seizure under federal law and loaned by the Russian Federation to American museums,” he said in an e-mail to the AP.

Chabad filed a statement and letter to State Department officials with the court May 13, assuring the U.S. government of its intentions.

The Russian culture minister announced the ban in January. Since then, key works from Russia that had been destined for exhibitions at the Met, the National Gallery and J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles have been held back.

“It’s all such a nightmare,” said Kent Russell, curator of the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Mass., which was forced to shutter its major show of the year after the Russian government in March called back 37 lent objects. The museum had already spent about $300,000 promoting the show when it had to be closed.

Legal experts and art professionals find it implausible that Russian cultural property lent to U.S. institutions could be seized.

“What bothers me about this is that Russia is disingenuously trying to place blame on the plaintiffs in the Chabad case for Russia’s alleged inability to loan artworks for the good of the American public,” said Howard Spiegler, an attorney with the International Art Law Group at Herrick, Feinstein, a New York-based firm.

He said exhibitions that are imported from abroad, as long as they are certified by the State Department, are protected from seizure.