Thursday, May 31, 2012

Court Seeks U.S. Views in Chabad Case that Triggered Russia's Embargo on Art Loans

The federal district court hearing Chabad v. Russian Federation -- the lawsuit that caused Russia to embargo loans of artworks to U.S. museums -- has solicited the U.S. government's views on the latest twist in the case.

The concern stated by the court is that judicial action could jeopardize relations between the two countries -- which are already tense.

The court is therefore seeking the White House's position on whether Russia ought to be held in contempt and ordered to pay monetary sanctions for its refusal to honor the court's default judgment.  That judgment ordered Russia to turn over two separate collections of Jewish-themed and religious books and manuscripts to the Brooklyn, New York-based Jewish sect known as Chabad.

Impact on U.S. Foreign Policy Interests

The court issued its request in response to a motion for sanctions brought by Chabad.  "Because of the serious impact such an order (for sanctions) could have on the foreign policy interests of the United States, this Court finds it  would be helpful to obtain the views of the United  States prior to action on the motion," the court wrote in its May 23 order to the Justice Department.

The request comes at a time of severe political tensions between the U.S. and Russia, with very public disagreements resulting from the recently arrived U.S. Ambassador in Moscow, Michael McFaul, making incendiary remarks in Russia -- and then, in several instances, having to apologize publicly for making them.  McFaul's comments have included calling Russia a "wild country," for example.

Other major diplomatic issues involve Russia's support of the Syrian government.

McFaul, via Twitter, said he is "still learning of craft" of being a diplomat.
Meanwhile, in the now seven-year-old Chabad litigation, the sect is seeking a hoard of books and manuscripts that was nationalized by the Soviet Union in the first years after the 1917 Russian Revolution, when the government abolished private property.

Standstill in U.S.-Russia Art Loans
Chabad is also seeking a second hoard, which originally belonged to a rabbi who had to leave it behind when he came to the U.S. seeking refuge from the Nazis.   This second hoard was twice taken -- first stolen by the Nazis in Warsaw and then seized by the Soviets at the end of World War II.

Chabad claims it is the rightful owner of both hoards, which it sometimes refers to as a single, "Schneerson," collection.

Russia abandoned the case, saying U.S. courts did not have jurisdiction over it because it is a sovereign nation, and in July 2010 the court issued a default judgment in favor of Chabad.

The art embargo started shortly thereafter and is still in effect.  In response, New York's Metropolitan Museum cancelled scheduled loans to Russia, and now neither U.S. nor Russian institutions are requesting loans from the other.

It has been suggested, by lawyers and others, that the "Russia factor" is behind proposed federal legislation to immunize foreign-government lenders of art from lawsuits based on their loans.

When the U.S. submits its brief on sanctions, it will be the second time the government has entered the case.  Almost a year ago it submitted a statement when Chabad moved to begin attaching Russian property to enforce its judgment.  Then the U.S. urged the court to proceed carefully while reiterating its longstanding support for Chabad.

Text (c) 2012 Laura Gilbert