Art as hostage


A couple of decades ago, a petty communist bureaucrat managed to carve himself a hefty helping of the Russian oil industry. People who say he stole it are instantly reminded that any great fortune has a similarly disputed origin, “and see how noble it came out in the end for the Rockefellers”.

Many years later, or, to be more specific, yesterday, a long-awaited Chagall exhibition in Sweden was cancelled a week before its scheduled opening.


You may wonder how Chagall’s getting the finger and the young communist’s turning oligarch are related. What’s the connection?

The bureaucrat, you see, was none other than Khodorkovsky, who, after a brief confrontation with another ex-communist, then (and now) the President of Russia, lost his assets, his freedom, and ultimately became a man of the world with liberal views and a villa in Switzerland.

It’s the doubly stolen oil assets that are the problem now. While anyone can have their own opinion about the original theft two decades ago without so much as a thread of evidence, the late confiscation is there for everyone to see as a bank robber’s face after a dye pack explosion.


So, international courts say Russia owes Khodorkovsy’s partners some USD 50bn, and if the money’s not paid, Russian assets will be arrested.

And this is why Chagall can’t travel anymore. Obviously, the State Russian Museum that was planning to loan the paintings fears they may not come back.

This is Chagall’s Promenade of 1918, but in its modified form it explains the connection.

Now, my question is, why has no one thought to exclude art from court decisions on state asset seizure? Yeah, I know, lawyers don’t care about anything except their share of the winnings, but still. Should state-owned art be hostage to claims made against the respective state and lead to cultural cut-offs?


  1. Since visual arts exist in the shape of tangible objects, they inevitably become assets. Excluding art from the category of assets by a convention is a great idea, but the “asset crowd” would never let go – there are already huge $$$ locked in it. Art trade would stop to exist as an industry etc. (wouldn’t that be great btw?)
    In the same train of thought I wonder if financiers have ever thought of arresting songs or plays … Here’s an opportunity ;)!

  2. Just what I was thinking before I got to the sentence below the ‘Come down..’ montage – very nice too.

    Yes, why not exclude them on the basis that art, like sport, is a bridge – and to endanger its transmission would do more harm than good. Well, maybe.

    1. Hi David, perhaps, the problem with art being like sport is that if sportsmen and sportswomen could be bought and sold, they’d also be a part “of the deal”. Legal profession has no shame, on average )

  3. I agree with Sandra, that great art should never be kept from the public eye especially if it is state owned. As for the legality of the situation – you would need the wisdom of Solomon for the answer.

It would be grand to hear from you now!

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