Russians in a jam over gems

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The Independent Online
Americans have grown accustomed to rescuing stranded Russians: circus artists whose contracts have not been honoured, sailors whose ships are impounded for non-payment of port fees, and much more of the same. But Washington has for the past few days been playing reluctant host to a particularly remarkable collection of the marooned: a pile of jewels that belonged to the family of Russia's last tsars, the Romanovs.

A giant American lorry is parked outside one of Washington's premier galleries - wedged between two saloon cars with diplomatic plates. The cars belong to Russian diplomats, one of whom - first secretary Mikhail Maslov - has been camping there with the express purpose of keeping the lorry immobilised.

The reason for the diplomatic traffic jam is a dispute between the Russian organisers of the Romanov exhibition (private businessmen, who want the jewels to continue their US tour to Houston and San Diego), and the Russian authorities, who want the jewels returned home instantly. Officially, the Russians want the jewels back to exhibit during celebrations for the 850th anniversary of the city of Moscow. Unofficially, it is said, they think that security for the jewels is inadequate and fear that the Russian organisers may pocket the proceeds.

The touring exhibition, "Jewels of the Romanovs: treasures of the Russian imperial court", was organised at the Washington end by a group which describes itself as independent and "dedicated to the enhancement of US- Russian cultural relations". The exhibition appeared to have official Russian blessing - how else would the priceless Romanov jewels been allowed to leave the country? - but now the authorities in Moscow have apparently changed their mind. Whether it is because they now want a slice of the exhibition's unexpected success (and proceeds) or because they have reassessed the risks, no one is saying.

Whatever the reason, the battle over the immediate future of Russia's most prized jewels now appears to rest in the hands of the US State Department.

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