Art becomes pawn in diplomatic row

Icy diplomatic relations between London and Moscow got even frostier after the Roskultura, the Russian state culture agency, formally cancelled an exhibition of Russian Art planned for next year citing “security reasons”.

The move has prompted the British government to announce that it will rush through new legislation early in the new year in an effort to satisfy Roskultura’s concerns and allow the Royal Academy exhibition to go ahead.

Several of the paintings have been the subject of legal claims in the past, from descendants of the collectors who owned them before they were nationalised in the Revolution.

Russia has said before that it would not lend works to countries without anti-seizure laws after 55 paintings held by the Pushkin Museum were impounded in 2005 while on loan in Switzerland.

Vladimir Titov, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, stressed there was no political motive behind the cancellation.

However the move comes on the heels of the Russian government’s decision to shut down two British Council offices in Russia, after the Russian foreign ministry accused the organisation of failing to pay tax and lacking legitimate status.

Britain has vowed to defy the order, which it says is illegal, setting the stage for a potential police showdown at the two offices in the new year.

Worsening diplomatic ties – which began with Russia’s refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, a suspect in the murder of ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko – may yet scupper the Royal Academy’s plans to host the exhibition on 26 January.

Cancellation would be a severe blow to the Royal Academy, which spent two years planning the show and had expected to earn at least £5 million.

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