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UK will `go the extra mile` to end Russian art row

More than 120 paintings by renowned artists were due to arrive in London in January. But Russia has halted the display, claiming the guarantees about the safety of the pictures provided by the British officials are not strong enough.

Mikhail Shvydkoy, the Head of the Federal Agency for Culture and Film insists there are no political reasons behind the decision, but only safety concerns.

“We ask the Cabinet of Ministers to make a local act, local solution just about this exhibition. And we are asking the ministers, the Prime Minister of the Great Britain to understand our position,” he said.   

The works of art by such masters as Matisse, Van Gogh, Renoir and Kandinsky were to be shown at the Royal Academy of Arts in London for the first time.

However, four top Russian museums which were to loan their masterpieces say they have no convincing guarantees that the paintings will travel back.

The main fear is that the paintings would be claimed by heirs of their pre-revolutionary owners.

Textile magnate and a passionate collector, Sergey Shchukin lost over 250 paintings when the Bolsheviks came to power. His collection contains the star of the London exhibition – Matisse’s ‘The Dance’.

Shchukin’s grandson, Andre-Marc Delocque-Fourcaud has twice tried to reclaim some of the paintings, both times unsuccessfully.

The Russian museums are also concerned the paintings may be seized by companies seeking to recover debts from Russia.

Two years ago, the Geneva-based company NOGA seized 82 paintings from the Hermitage Museum. These paintings were held for one day before the Swiss government stepped in.

British insurers had underwritten the collection against loss or damage for 900 million pounds.

In addition, the artworks are subject to the State Immunity Act, which safeguards all foreign state property in the UK.

Nevertheless, this legislation only applies to the European Union countries, and does not give immunity to the Russian art.

Moscow has been urging the UK to pass the anti-seizure law. The bill, currently going through the British parliament, is due to be passed in January, two months earlier than scheduled.   

Meanwhile, in his announcement on BBC Radio James Purnell, British Culture Secretary, said, "Because this is such an important exhibition, we are prepared to go the extra mile. We will bring forward the commencement of the legislation.''

The masterpiece exhibition is currently on tour in Düsseldorf, Germany.

Britain hopes all the stumbling blocks will be removed, and the landmark display will open in London as scheduled, on January 26.