From Russia: No Love

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Dance (II), Matisse, 1910 — Image: The Hermitage Museum

The Russians have abruptly cancelled “From Russia: French and Russian Art Masterpieces of 1870-1925″, a lavish loan show that was supposed to move next month from Dusseldorf to the Royal Academy of Art in London. The reason they give is that the British have not guaranteed that works in the show, which include major canvases like Matisse’s Dance (II) and a Cezanne view of Mont St. Victoire, would be returned to Russia in the event that descendants of the original owners of some works brought legal claims for their restitution.

In the past, descendants of Sergei Shchukin, the great Russian patron of Matisse and Picasso, have attempted without success to reclaim works from his collection that were confiscated by the Soviets and eventually passed on to Russian museums. The British Parliament has adopted legislation to protect art on loan from seizures of that kind, but it hasn’t yet come into force.

All the same, the British press suspects that the real reason for the cancellation is that it’s another opportunity for the Russians to vent their annoyance that the British are continuing their investigation into the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian security agent who was poisoned in London last November. The Russians have refused to extradite the man whom the Brits want to charge with the crime. (Gee, all this on the day that my magazine makes Vladimir Putin Person of the Year.)

UPDATE: On Friday the Russians changed course and decided that the work could travel to London as soon as Parliament moves up the effective date for that indemnifying legislation, though no guarantees as to whether the show would open on time on Jan. 26 as scheduled.

If a diplomatic spat over the Litvinenko investigation was the real reason for the cancellation, then the show was a victim of the souring of Russian-British relations. A pity, but hardly the first time that works of art have been used as pawns in political games. I thought of that this morning after reading that yesterday Sotheby’s in New York auctioned off a 1297 copy of the Magna Carta for $21.3 million. (There are actually 17 surviving copies of the Magna Carta from the 13th century. Between 300 and 400 were produced periodically for distribution to English shire courts and cathedrals.) The Magna Carta isn’t a work of art, but it’s certainly a precious object, and as I learned recently a different copy was also once used, or almost used, as a pawn in a (more benign) political game.

So, the book-length hardcover catalogue that Sotheby’s prepared for their one-item Magna Carta sale yesterday contains this story:

In 1939 a copy of the Charter belonging to England’s Lincoln Cathedral was on loan to the U.S. for display at the New York World’s Fair. By the time the fair closed that fall Britain and Germany were at war, but the U.S. was still on the sidelines. Earlier in the year an American supporter of Britain named J.W. Hamilton had proposed to a prominent British politician named Leo Amery that the Lincoln Magna Carta might be given as a permanent gift to the U.S. That would not only demonstrate the sources of American democracy in an English document, it would encourage pro-British sentiment in the U.S. at a time when isolationists were fighting to keep America out of the war. Amery passed the idea along to the then-Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain.

The British Foreign Office was at first cool to the idea. But by early 1941, with the war going badly for Britain and Winston Churchill installed as Prime Minister, Winston himself started to think well of it. But then came ministerial second thoughts. If Britain gave a copy to the U.S., then Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa would all want one, and the Brits only had so many copies to go around. Even worse, the British government didn’t actually own the Lincoln Magna Carta. Officials of Lincoln Cathedral did, and they weren’t inclined to let go of it.

The entire question remained stalemated until December, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entered the war anyway, though for the duration of the war the Lincoln Magna Carta did remain at Fort Knox for safekeeping.

Okay, class dismissed.