27 March 2020 - Article
The Royal Academy’s exhibition “From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings 1870-1925” which runs from 26 January to 18 April 2008 is now well under way and is receiving record numbers of visitors. At the end of last year, however, there was considerable doubt that the exhibition would actually take place in London at all.
The exhibition contains a number of works that were seized from private collections during the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. Highlights of the exhibition include works from the collections of Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov.
The Russian Government was nervous of potential claims of ownership not only from the individual descendants of Shchukin and Morozov, but also from commercial creditors of the Russian Government who might seize the paintings while on loan, in satisfaction of moneys owed. As a result, Russia requested an assurance from the British government that the works would be returned to Russia after the exhibition. Despite a ‘letter of comfort’ from the Culture Secretary, the Russian Government was not satisfied.
The legal solution
With just a few weeks until the exhibition was due to open, Russia’s Federal Culture and Cinematography Agency, Roskultura, said that it had not received adequate legal guarantees from the British Government. This prompted the British Government to bring forward new legislation previously planned for February 2008. Thus, Part 6 of The Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 came into force on 31 December 2007, just in time for the exhibition.
Part 6 provides immunity from seizure to objects of any description, owned by a person or institution not resident in the United Kingdom, which are lent for temporary exhibitions to the public at any approved museum or gallery in the United Kingdom. Immunity will be given from any form of seizure ordered in civil or criminal proceedings, and from any seizure by law enforcement authorities.
For an object to be protected from seizure, five conditions must be satisfied:
- the object must normally be kept outside the United Kingdom;
- it must not be owned by anyone resident in the United Kingdom;
- the import of the object must comply with the law on the import of goods (such as The Customs & Excise Act 1979);
- it must be brought to the United Kingdom in order to be publicly displayed at a temporary exhibition at a museum or gallery;
- the museum or gallery must comply with regulations that the Secretary of State may make requiring publication of information about the object.
Whilst in the United Kingdom, the object will receive protection in the following situations:
- if on public display in a temporary exhibition at a museum or gallery;
- going to or returning from public display in a temporary exhibition at a museum or gallery;
- related repair, conservation or restoration;
- going to or returning from related repair, conservation or restoration;
- leaving the United Kingdom.
Objects are only afforded protection for the duration of the temporary exhibition, up to a maximum of 12 months. Any objects on loan for a longer period will not be protected after the 12-month period has passed.
The Secretary of State has the power to introduce regulations that require a museum or gallery to provide further information about an object to inquirers. The purpose of these regulations is to ensure that sufficient information is available before the loan takes place to help those that may have a claim to cultural objects that have been stolen, looted or otherwise unlawfully appropriated. In such cases the borrowing museum or gallery will have the opportunity to investigate provenance and thus ensure it is complying with its legal obligations.
Effect of protection
If protection is applicable under the Act as outlined above, the object may not be seized or forfeited under any enactment or rule of law, unless:
- it is seized or forfeited under or by virtue of an order made by a court in the United Kingdom; and
- the court is required to make the order under, or under provision giving effect to, a Community obligation or any international treaty.
An example of where this might apply is where the court is asked to enforce an order for the seizure of an object made by the courts of another country to confiscate the proceeds of crime.