France retains works from Russian Morozov collection due to Ukraine crisis

The Russian Morozov collection attracted more than a million visitors during its 6-month exhibition at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. However, this remarkable feat was overshadowed by the decision of the French Ministry of Culture to withhold two of the works due to the war in Ukraine.

“We recorded 1.25 million visitors, 84% of whom were French,” the Foundation said, indicating that although it did not exceed visitors to the Russian Shchukin Collection 2016-2017 (1.3 million), she was indeed exceptional.

The slightly lower score was attributed to restrictions in place due to the Covid pandemic and the absence of foreign visitors, particularly from Asia.

The collection, started by the brothers Mikhail and Ivan Abramovich Morozov at the beginning of the 20and century, includes works by European masters such as Van Gogh, Cézanne, as well as works of Russian art such as Malevich and Repin.

Initially scheduled until February 22, the “Morozov collection; modern art icons” has been extended until April 3, 2022.

It was the first time that a collection of this size – more than 200 works – was exhibited outside of Russia.

It is currently being dismantled and most of the works will be returned to the Tretyakov and Pushkin museums in Moscow and the Hermitage museum in Saint Petersburg as well as some private collections.

What was heralded as a great diplomatic achievement between France and Russia has since been marred by The Russian invasion of Ukraine February 24.

Just a few months ago, the catalog of the exhibition featured the enthusiastic words of the two presidents; Emmanuel Macron praised “the bridges that artists and art lovers have built” while Vladimir Putin spoke of his “French friends”.

In fact, the exhibition itself almost did not take place, due to international tensions related to the Syrian conflict and the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

It was only in 2017, after Putin met Macron at Versailles to talks within the framework of the “Dialogue du Trianon” that an agreement has been signed to allow the continuation of the exhibition.

However, on Saturday, the French culture ministry announced that two of the works in the collection would remain in France due to the Ukraine crisis.

Freeze of assets

A painting, currently owned by a Russian oligarch targeted by Western sanctions, and another, belonging to a Ukrainian museum.

A source familiar with the matter, who requested anonymity, told French news agency AFP that the first photo is a self-portrait by Russian artist Piotr Konchalovsky owned by Russian oligarch Petr Aven.

Aven, a billionaire financier and banker, is considered close to President Vladimir Putin.

This painting “will remain in France as long as its owner (…) remains subject to an asset freeze”, the ministry said in its press release.

The second painting, a painting by Margarita Morozova by Russian painter Valentin Serov belongs to the Museum of Fine Arts in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro and will remain in France “until the situation in the country allows its safe return”, the ministry said.

He stressed that it was “at the request of the Ukrainian authorities”.

International agreement

Meanwhile, France is currently assessing the situation regarding a third photo belonging to a private foundation linked to another Russian oligarch which is added to the sanctions list, the ministry said.

The source added to AFP that this photo belongs to the Magma foundation linked to Vyacheslav Kantor. He is already targeted by British sanctions for his stake in a fertilizer company.

Some have questioned whether France has the right to do so, especially given an international agreement in place stipulating that works of art on loan from other countries cannot be arbitrarily confiscated by governments.

It was signed in 1994, after a legal battle involving a work by Henri Matisse. His descendants wanted to keep it in France instead of sending it back to Russia as part of the Chtchoukine collection. The court ruled in favor of the Russian state.

The law was created to prevent the seizure of works during their exhibition abroad, a kind of artistic “immunity”, specialized lawyer Olivier de Baecque told France Info.

The result is that it has made it easier for France to borrow works of art from around the world, he says.

Blacklist

For the Morozov collection, three official decrees were signed by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Culture adhering to the agreement on February 19, 2021, as well as those of May 18 and January 6, 2022 to cover the extension.

The current decree is valid until May 15, when the collection must return to Russia.

But there are concerns over the return of the footage, which is expected to take place by land rather than air due to current restrictions on air travel between Europe and Russia.

France began to seize the assets of Russian oligarchs from March 3, as part of the sanctions decreed by the European Union.

A “blacklist” of 510 Russian companies and individuals was established by the French Ministry of Finance and to date five yachts have already been seized.

Christi C. Elwood