Court Calls Russia’s Fear of Chabad Art Seizure Legitimate

The U.S.-Russia art wars are again center stage in Chabad v. Russian Federation, the case that triggered Russia’s current embargo on lending art to U.S. museums.

In a decision issued Tuesday, the federal District Court in Washington, D.C. acknowledged that Russia’s fear that its art might be seized by Chabad, the Brooklyn-based Jewish Orthodox sect, is legitimate. The embargo, thus, is not without rationale.

Chabad is seeking to seize Russian property to satisfy a default judgment it obtained last year.

Russia has stated that if it sends art to the U.S. it fears it will be seized by Chabad to force it to comply with the judgment.  As a result, over the last year, Russia has cancelled loans to such institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and recalled other loans.

For the most part, legal experts and the press have denigrated Russia’s fears.  Yet, in its just-issued opinion the federal court said otherwise.  The court’s statements were in its decision denying Chabad’s motion for sanctions as premature and granting its motion to begin enforcement proceedings on the judgment obtained when Russia refused to acknowledge U.S. jurisdiction.

The Court stated it “is unwilling to conclude that Russia’s concerns about the safety of its own cultural objects is entirely unfounded, given prior – albeit unsuccessful – attempts to attach such objects in at least one other case.”

In a stunning suggestion of diplomacy where the judicial branch of government tries to do what the State Department has not – cool things off – the Court said it hopes its decision “will help facilitate a return to business as usual in the sharing of artifacts and history between nations that is crucial to the promotion of cross-cultural understanding.”

But it also issued a warning: “While the Court is eager to provide whatever assurances to Moscow are necessary to encourage full future exchanges of art and artifacts between the United States and Russia, . . . the Court is not imbued with the authority to pre-judge any potential attachment that might occur.”