Directors of leading American galleries have bemoaned a "political" decision by the Russian government which will strip several upcoming exhibitions of paintings by masters such as Paul Cézanne.
The dispute, originally over Orthodox Jewish religious documents, has turned into a diplomatic battle between Russia and the United States that is set to prevent art masterpieces held by Russian museums being loaned to institutions across the Atlantic.
Works due to be loaned – by the likes of the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and the Hermitage in St Petersburg – to a number of leading American galleries will stay put in Russia, unless the US gives the Russian museums cast-iron guarantees that they will be immune from seizure.
The stand-off has arisen after an American court ruled that Russia must hand over a library of Jewish religious documents to a US-based religious organisation. The dispute is over a collection of 12,000 books and 50,000 documents, which were assembled by the Chabad-Lubavitch movement of Hasidic Jews over 200 years prior to the Second World War. Russia says the American court has no jurisdiction in Russia, and is worried that the US courts will try to take loaned artworks hostage.
Marshall Grossman, a lawyer for the Chabad organisation, said the documents were of "no interest" to Russia but of extreme importance for the Chabad followers because they detailed the laws and customs of the groups over decades.
He told The New York Times the group would try every legal avenue to get the documents back. This has led the Russians to worry that any artworks loaned from state-run museums could be seized by courts keen to enforce the initial ruling, which they say has no legal basis in Russia.
Their wariness is understandable. In 2005, 54 artworks were briefly impounded after an exhibition in Switzerland at the request of a Swiss logistics firm, which claimed that the Russian government owed it hundreds of millions of pounds in unpaid debts. The paintings included works by Monet, Renoir, Gauguin and Picasso; together they were insured for over £500m, but the whole collection was seized by Swiss authorities as trucks were transporting it back to Moscow.
A day later, the works were released by a government order, but the incident made its mark on Russian arts policy. "Ever since this case the Russian government has been hyper-sensitive about any hint of a claim resulting from a third-party dispute," John Varoli, an art consultant in St Petersburg, said. "They will only send artworks when they have a cast-iron guarantee from the host government."
The Americans say that an existing statute already guarantees immunity for any artworks that are on loan from foreign countries, pointing out that the Metropolitan Museum of Art alone has borrowed works from Russian museums for over 40 shows since 1990, and all have been returned safely. But the Russians have insisted that this is not good enough, and want a more explicit guarantee that the works will not be touched.
"We are all caught up in a political situation that is not of our making," Thomas Campbell, director of the Met, told The New York Times.
While many Americans seemed frustrated by Russia's insistence on new guarantees must be given, some others said it was understandable.