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As the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) prepares to open its international exhibition of Islamic art titled “Gifts of the Sultan: The Arts of Giving at the Islamic Courts” on June 5, controversy surrounds 28 items that the Russian government is considering withholding for fear they will be seized by local authorities.
A July 30, 2010 U.S. District Court ruling in favor of Chabad-Lubavitch ordered that the Russian government return nearly 12,000 books and manuscripts, and 25,000 pages of rabbinic writings known as the Schneerson Collection, that were seized during the Russian Revolution and World War II. This has left in doubt the status of the 28 items scheduled to be included in the LACMA exhibit.
While Chabad representatives have assured Russian authorities and LACMA that they will not attempt to seize any items on display, the Russian government has decided to withhold all art loans to the United States.
“There is no legitimate basis for the Russians’ fear,” said Seth Gerber, an attorney with Bingham McCutchen LLP, and legal representative for Chabad-Lubavitch. “After litigation for five years, the Russian government implemented a ban as a reaction to losing the case. Chabad has made no effort to seize any artwork. We have no desire to seize any items in the exhibition. We have tried to alleviate any concerns, and even entered into a binding agreement with LACMA.”
Gerber stated that Chabad-Lubavitch is well aware of the federal law that shields artworks loaned to United States museums from seizure in execution of judgments.
“I would hope the Russian government would go forward with the loans as planned, so that the public can come and enjoy this exhibit,” Gerber said. “We’d also hope that the Russian government would comply with the judgment at any time. We eagerly await Russian compliance with international law.”
The banning of items by the Russian government also leaves in doubt separate exhibits scheduled at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
“This has moved beyond Chabad, because we have a legal document stating they have no intention to seize any of the items on exhibit,” exhibition curator Linda Komaroff said. “We did everything that was possible to satisfy what [the Russians] wanted. This is more of a government-to-government issue.”
LACMA has assembled more than 250 works from 40 institutions worldwide to examine Islamic art through the universal tradition of gift giving. The exhibit will span the 8th through 19th Centuries with collections from America, Europe, and the Middle East. Items featured in the exhibit include silk carpets and textiles woven with golden thread; jewelry and objects fashioned of precious metal; containers fashioned of jade, ivory, or rock crystal; illustrated manuscripts; enameled and gilded glass; carved and inlaid wooden furnishings; and jewel-encrusted arms and armor.
“This is a show I conceived in the post 9/11 era which we live in,” Komaroff said. “We hope that ‘Gifts from the Sultan’ will introduce new audiences to Islamic art by focusing on a practice shared by all cultures, gift exchange. We all share a sense of delight in receiving gifts, and the many sumptuous objects presented in this exhibition will allow visitors to imagine themselves as the fortunate recipients.”
The exhibit will be on view through Sept. 5. Organized by LACMA, with support from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the exhibit was made possible in part by LACMA’s Wallis Annenberg Director’s Endowment Fund. LACMA is located at 5905 Wilshire Blvd. For information, call (323)857-6000, or visit www.lacma.org.
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