An Exhibit Of Bad Faith

Romanov Jewels: Russian Strong-arming Of American Museums Could Hurt Exchanges.

April 23, 1997

A HUGE MOVING van is marooned in front of Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art, blocked at both ends by cars bearing Russian diplomatic license plates. Inside the climate-controlled tractor trailer are ancient Russian czarist heirlooms. Meanwhile, jewels of the Romanov dynasty valued at more than $100 million have been in the Corcoran vault since the April 13 closing of an exhibit of imperial treasures that drew some 80,000 visitors.

The cause of this strange standoff is the Russian government's sudden demand that the Romanov jewels' U.S. tour be interrupted and the treasures returned to Moscow, which will be celebrating its 850th anniversary later this year. But, suggests a man claiming to represent the Russians, the tour might continue to Houston, San Diego and Memphis -- if certain new financial arrangements are made.

Foreign investors active in Russia are only too familiar with this kind of blackmail. Contracts negotiated with Russians often turn out to be worthless. A classic case involved Moscow's first 24-hour supermarket, which opened with the participation of Irish investors soon after the collapse of communism. The shop thrived. Then came a fateful board meeting, where the Russian side came with gunmen and told the Irish they had made their profit and had better disappear.

The squabble about the Romanov exhibit marks the first time this kind of strong-arming threatens a cultural exchange. Unless the tour can be continued, the feud could hamper any future traveling exhibits American museums may negotiate with Russians.

Cultural exchange agreements with the Soviets often were affected by changing relations between the superpowers. But since the Ministry of Culture handled all the negotiations, Western cultural institutions never had to doubt that they had a valid contract. Now the multitude of Russian organizations making rival claims to legitimacy complicates matters.

The American-Russian Cultural Cooperation Foundation, which brought the Romanov treasures here, is right to be dubious about new orders from Moscow that attempt to invalidate previously signed contracts.

Pub Date: 4/23/97

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