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As major Russian art shows wrap up in Europe, some wonder what’s next

A hit show at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, on the outskirts of Paris, has been seen by more than a million people since it opened in November. Known as the Morozov Collection, it includes paintings by Picasso, Gauguin, Renoir, and Van Gogh, as well as some of Russia’s most renowned painters. The collection, which had never been seen outside of Russia, is so important to the country that President Vladimir V. Putin personally signed on works traveling to France.

Normally, the works would be packed in boxes and returned to Russian museums after the exhibition closes on April 3. Now, due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is unclear when these works will return home.

Jean-Paul Claverie, special adviser to Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH, the luxury conglomerate that created and runs the Louis Vuitton Foundation, said in a telephone interview that curators at three of Russia’s major museums, who would normally oversee works expelled, may not be able to travel easily to France due to ever-changing restrictions on flights from Russia.

Most European nations have prohibits Russian airlines from entering their airspacewhile many European carriers have suspended flights to and from Russia.

More complicated than how Russian curators might get to Paris, however, is the question of how the works can be returned safely. The Louis Vuitton Foundation, in coordination with the respective Russian institutions, was investigating what to do “if we have a problem” to cross borders, Claverie said. “Maybe we will have to store the works, or store them in an embassy, ​​or keep the collection in the safe we ​​have at the Foundation.” He added, “Paint safety is our sole focus.”

As the war in Ukraine continues, museums across Europe face a series of questions – logistical, moral and diplomatic – about how they should deal with their Russian counterparts. This includes determining how to return artworks safely, but also what to do with future exhibits that are believed to involve Russian loans.

“The Morozov Collection” is not the only high-profile exhibition facing these dilemmas. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has 13 objects from Russian museums in its sold-out exhibition on jeweler Fabergewhich is on view until May 8. These include a Fabergé egg that Putin gave to the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia, as well as objects belonging to the Link of Times Foundation, whose founder, Viktor Vekselberg, is on the UK government’s sanctions list.

A spokeswoman for the museum, commonly known as the V&A, declined to fully explain what will happen to the 13 objects when the exhibit closes. And a spokesperson for the UK’s Department of Culture said in an email that it “will work with the V&A to see how we can get the Fabergé eggs back to Russia at the right time”.

Russian museums are also struggling with these problems. In early March, officials from the Hermitage Museum wrote to several Italian museums to tell them that, under orders from the Russian Ministry of Culture, it was recalling all loans worldwide by March 31.

Then, last week, the museum made a U-turnsaying in a statement that “given the security and logistical issues” it would ultimately not be a matter of recalling the items.

Raffaele Curi, artistic director of the Alda Fendi Foundation, who exhibits Picasso’s “Young Woman 1909” in Romeon loan from the Hermitage until May 15, said in a phone interview that the U-turn may be “convenient” for Russia, as it was difficult to see how the paintings could be returned at the moment .

The Picasso had traveled by truck through Ukraine to Rome, Curi said, adding “it would have been very difficult logistically” to make that return trip now.

Robert Read, fine arts manager at Hiscox, a specialist insurer that often works with European museums, said in a phone interview that problems with returning works were likely logistical rather than political. Frederic de Weck, the head of the Russian branch of art logistics company ESI, agreed, saying the reason the paintings and artworks might stay in Western Europe is the lack of direct flights to Russia. museums not wanting to send their works via connecting flights. considering the additional risks.

De Weck said he recently spoke with officials from the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, who said his paintings from the Morozov collection would “stay in France” until direct flights were available. possible.

Sending the works by truck was not a good option given the ongoing tensions, he added. Some trucks bearing Russian license plates had been attacked while traveling through Europe. So on recent trips, his drivers had taken to covering up any signage indicating they were from Russia whenever they parked overnight.

Any suggestion that the work could be seized is baseless, he added, since all international loans were made under agreements that prevented them from being seized by a foreign government.

Governments and museums wouldn’t want to be denied returning works of art because it would “disrupt the whole system” of international loans, Read said. The paintings of the Louis Vuitton Foundation, for example, are covered by a French law called the “arrest of inseizability”, which protects cultural objects against seizure by a foreign government.

Some freight companies, including Fedex, have suspended deliveries to Russia, but it is unclear whether specialist art movers have done so. Several specialist firms, including Momart and Cadogan Tate, did not respond to requests for comment.

The impact of the invasion on long-term collaborations between Russian and European museums is unclear. Since 2011, Russian state museums have refused to loan works of art to museums in the United States, fearing that they will be confiscated.

Some European art scholars fear a similar freeze is now happening between Russian museums and those in Western Europe. The governments of Austria, Britain, the Netherlands and Spain asked cultural organizations not to collaborate with Russian state museums, even though they have been planning exhibitions with them for years, while Russia has also stopped some international collaborations.

These movements have an impact, with shows canceled and exhibition tours in Russia stopped. Karina Iwe, curator at the State Archaeological Museum in Chemnitz, Germany, said in a telephone interview that for more than two years she had been working on body art exhibition, scheduled to open on April 1, the highlight of which was to be the preserved body of a Siberian horseman, covered in tattoos. The Siberian branch of Russian Institute of Archeology and Ethnography approved the loan. But in early March, the institute told him that the body would not leave Russia. “I’m afraid that with each day of the war, it will become more and more difficult for future collaboration,” Iwe said.

Natalia Murray, curator at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and born in Saint Petersburg, said in an email that “a ban on loans and exhibitions will firmly close the door to Russian culture which will be very difficult to reopen. ”

For years, art exhibitions have helped “build bridges” with Russia as political relations have broken down, she said. Even if the desire not to work with Russia was understandable, the current wave of cancellations is “burning these last bridges between our countries”.

Such moves, she added, “cut the last threads of hope for some understanding of people and culture ‘on the other side'”.