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Russian art loan to London exhibition in doubt amid fears paintings could be seized

    MOSCOW — Russian authorities have canceled a major exhibition of French and Russian paintings set to open in London in January, fearing authorities could seize the art to settle private legal claims, a Russian museum official said Wednesday.
    A Russian cultural official, however, said a final decision on lending paintings for the exhibition, called ‘‘From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings 1870-1925,’’ would be made Thursday.
    The head of Russia’s federal cultural agency, Mikhail Shvydkoi, said descendants of two prominent 19th and early 20th century Russian art patrons and collectors had not ruled out legal action. It was not immediately clear where those descendants live.
    Britain’s cultural agency said it had assured Russia that the works — which include renowned Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings — were protected under British law. London’s Royal Academy of Arts initially expressed confidence that its exhibit would open on schedule, but later released a more guarded statement.
    ‘‘The Royal Academy of Arts has not received any official notification regarding the status of the exhibition and is seeking clarification with the Russian Ministry of Culture,’’ museum spokeswoman Johanna Bennett said.
    The uncertainty about the exhibition has arisen at a time when relations between Russia and Britain have been badly damaged by the case of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned in London last year. Moscow refused to extradite the man wanted by Britain in connection with the slaying.
    Zinaida Bonami, deputy director of Moscow’s Pushkin Fine Arts Museum, said the Russian federal cultural agency notified the museum and three others on Tuesday that it would not issue an export license for the works, including paintings by Matisse and Van Gogh. Some of the works have rarely been seen outside Russia.
    The State Hermitage museum, the Russian Museum and the Tretyakov gallery were also denied licenses, she said.
    The agency explained its refusal, saying that British law does not protect against artworks being seized by law suits or court decisions, she said. The exhibition is currently in Duesseldorf, Germany, where organizers have had no problems.
    In 2005, a collection of French masterpieces belonging to the Pushkin museum was seized and held in Switzerland over millions of dollars in alleged debts that a Swiss company claimed was owed to it by Russia. The Swiss government later stepped in and ordered the paintings returned to Russia.
    Natalia Uvarova, an official with the Federal Service on Culture and Cinematography, which oversees export licenses, said the final decision on canceling the exhibit would be made Thursday if Britain failed to provide the necessary guarantees.
    ‘‘I don’t see any sort of political subtext here,’’ she said. ‘‘We’re following long-established procedures that require a state guarantee for these sorts of exhibitions.’’
    Britain’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport said it had no notice that the Russian museums intended to change their plans. British Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport James Purnell assured Russia in a letter this month that the artworks were covered under the State Immunity Act of 1978.
    ‘‘The government has done everything possible to facilitate the exhibition going ahead, including full assurances that the works would be protected from seizure,’’ the department said.
    Shvydkoi, the head of Russia’s Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography, however, reportedly dismissed the assurances.
    ‘‘The British legal system is constructed in such a way that even a governmental guarantee will not protect us from legal action,’’ the Interfax news agency quoted him as saying.
    Earlier this month, Russia ordered a British cultural organization to suspend all its operations outside Moscow at the beginning of 2008, accusing it of operating illegally — a decision Britain’s foreign secretary said threatened to damage Moscow’s global standing.
    Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he hoped the diplomatic crisis between London and Moscow would not damage trade or cultural ties.
    ‘‘Unfortunately, we are not living through the best period of political and diplomatic relations with Britain,’’ he said.

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