US Judge Puts Russia in Contempt Over Refusal to Return Historic Collection

Books from the Schneerson Collection (click to enlarge) (image via Chabad)
Books from the Schneerson Collection (click to enlarge) (image via Chabad)

It’s been more than two years since Russia issued a ban on lending art to the United States, and the latest news in the ongoing saga is that a federal judge has now declared the Russian government in contempt of court, imposing fines on it of $50,000 a day, the LA Times reports.

The dispute stems from a fight between the Russian government and Chabad, the Hassidic Jewish sect. Chabad leaders want Russia to hand over the Schneerson Collection, a huge historical trove of religious books and papers named after the Schneersons, a family of Hassidic rabbis from Russia. The collection dates as far back as the 1700s and includes 12,000 books and manuscripts plus 250,000 pages of religious writing.

The Russian embassy has called the collection “part of Russia’s national heritage,” and the government refuses to return it, ignoring a 2010 ruling by US District Judge Royce C. Lamberth that Russia must give it back. So Lamberth has now declared the Russian government in contempt of court and levied those high fines.

If you’re wondering what all of this has to with the art-loan ban: while the Russia v. Chabad dispute languishes at an interminable pass, the Russian government has refused to lend any art to the US, for fear that Chabad will seize the works and hold them hostage as collateral or compensation for the Schneerson Collection. Chabad, for its part, has said in court that it won’t do that.

The whole dispute seems frustratingly unresolvable, and this latest ruling sort of puts its over the top, in terms of absurdity. Can a US court really hold another country’s government in contempt — or perhaps the better question is, will it have any effect? I suppose that depends on whether the court can enforce the fines. An addendum at the end of the LA Times piece says that might, in fact, be possible:

An earlier version of this post said that Chabad attorney Seth Gerber acknowledged that the fines imposed against Russia were unenforceable. Gerber says that is not the case, and that he thinks the fines can be enforced under provisions of a US law, the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which in certain instances allows for seizing the property of foreign nations when it is on U.S. soil and is “used for a commercial activity in the United States.”

But the New York Times reports that the Russian government is — understandably, I’d say — angry about the fines, and refuses to pay them. It issued a statement yesterday saying, “The Russian Foreign Ministry regards as absolutely unlawful and provocative the decision of the federal court in Washington. We have repeatedly stated that this verdict is extraterritorial in character, contradicts international law and is legally void.” So for the time being, don’t expect to see any Russian artworks in US museum exhibitions, unless they’re coming from private donors.

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