Government orders release of seized paintings

This work by Paul Gauguin was one of the Pushkin Museum's works on show in Switzerland. Gianadda Foundation

The Swiss government has ordered that a collection of Russian-owned masterpieces be allowed to leave the country after it was seized by prosecutors in Geneva.

This content was published on November 16, 2005 - 19:36

The move comes after it was announced earlier on Wednesday that paintings on loan from Moscow's Pushkin Art Museum had been impounded on behalf of a Swiss firm which claims Russia owes it money.

"Cantonal authorities have been requested to carry out the release immediately," said government spokesman Oswald Sigg at a hastily-organised press conference in Bern.

Paul Seger, head of the directorate for public international law at the foreign ministry, said that the decision had been made according to international law.

"The decision has been taken... in order to respect international obligations regarding the protection of national cultural heritage goods against seizure by courts in foreign countries," Seger told swissinfo.

"This is an internationally recognised principle which is now codified in a United Nations convention which should enter into force soon," added the ambassador.

Switzerland hopes that the prompt release will avoid a legal dispute with Russia, added officials.

Under Switzerland's federal system, the government had to invoke a constitutional clause giving it priority over cantons when national interests are at stake.


The impressionist artworks, including paintings by Van Gogh, Monet and Renoir, were confiscated earlier this week following the end of a five-month exhibition at the Pierre Gianadda Foundation in Martigny, in western Switzerland.

Swiss trading firm Noga claims Russia owes it more than $60 million in unpaid debts from oil-for-food deals signed in the early 1990s. The company has been behind previous moves to seize Russian-owned jets and a sailing ship in France.

The Russian embassy in Bern said that the pictures taken were valued at $1 billion.

The embassy on Wednesday welcomed the Swiss government's decision.

"We put great stress on good cultural relations between our two countries," spokesman Igor Petrov told swissinfo.

"It's obviously embarrassing that such a great exhibition should end in this way, so we're relieved at the positive outcome."


The seizure of the paintings had caused an outcry in Russia. The president of the lower house of parliament, Boris Gryzlov, said the works had been "taken hostage".

The Russian Culture Ministry had reportedly decided to stop all negotiations over the lending of Russian artworks to Switzerland.

It called the seizure "a gross violation of international legislation for the defence of cultural goods".

But there seemed to be some confusion over the number of pictures taken. The director of the Pushkin museum, Irina Antonova, said about 50 paintings were blocked in Switzerland, whereas the Russian embassy in Bern said it was 25.

Members of the Swiss art world also condemned the seizure. Christoph Vitali, director of the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, told swissinfo earlier on Wednesday he was "absolutely flabbergasted" when he heard the news.

He was also worried that there would be repercussions for Swiss-Russian cultural relations.


Swiss officials said earlier on Wednesday that the removal of the paintings was initiated following an order from the Geneva authorities and that the Valais cantonal police were also involved.

It was reported that the paintings had been loaded into six trucks after the exhibition ended on November 13. The trucks were said to be in the custody of the Swiss authorities.

The Pierre Gianadda Foundation, which is not involved in the dispute, has so far not commented on the seizure.

This is not the first time that Noga has been involved in seizing Russian assets. In 2000, it had the Russian tall sailing ship Sedov impounded for 11 days when it came to France to take part in an international regatta. A year later it had the accounts of the Russian embassy in Paris frozen.

In both cases the courts ended up ruling in favour of Russia, which claims that the debts were connected to the former Soviet Union.

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

The seized paintings were exhibited from June 17 to November 13 at the Gianadda Foundation in Martigny.
The exhibition was entitled "Works of art from French painting in the Pushkin Collection, Moscow".
It covered three centuries of French painting and included 54 works.
This included paintings by Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne, and Derain, which are among the museum's best-known works.

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In brief

The seized paintings were the latest in a series of tensions between Switzerland and Russia.

In 2002, an aeroplane collision over Überlingen on Lake Constance in Swiss airspace resulted in the deaths of around 50 Russian children.

The blocking of accounts belonging to Russian oil giant Yukos also caused Russian displeasure.

Also criticised has been Switzerland's decision to extradite the former Russian nuclear energy minister Yevgeny Adamov to the United States instead of Russia.

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