Updated at 5:01 p.m.
Attorneys for the Chabad-Lubavitch movement have pledged not to seek Russian artwork on loan to U.S. museums to fulfill a judgment against the Russian government over the return of sacred Jewish texts in its possession.
The Russian government, meanwhile, is preparing for "direct negotiations" with the U.S. over the case, a spokesman for the Russian Embassy said this afternoon.
Chabad, an orthodox movement within Judaism, wants the Russian government to turn over approximately 12,000 books and manuscripts seized during the Bolshevik Revolution and Russian Civil War in the early 20th century and 25,000 pages of handwritten texts stolen by Nazis during World War II and then taken by Russian soldiers once the war was over.
According to court documents filed yesterday and Friday in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, officials from the U.S. State and Justice Departments have expressed concern about Russia’s decision to withdraw art on loan to U.S. museums and ban future loans in light of a default judgment entered against Russia in the case on July 30.
The Russian government had previously notified the court that it no longer intended to recognize its orders as binding.
In April, Justice Department attorneys notified the court that they were considering whether to get involved in the case, but did not offer a reason. Yesterday, the Justice Department asked the court for more time (PDF) in light of a statement filed by Chabad on Friday that it would not lay claim to Russian artifacts.
As part of the statement (PDF), Chabad included a May 9 letter to U.S. officials from its attorneys, Nathan Lewin of Washington’s Lewin & Lewin and Seth Gerber of Los Angeles’ Bingham McCutchen. In the letter, Lewin and Gerber affirmed that the group never had plans to claim Russian artwork on loan to U.S. museums.
“You advised us that the United States had become concerned … We responded that our client is aware of the federal law that shields artworks loaned to United States museums from seizure in execution of judgments, and that our client intends fully to comply with that federal law,” they wrote.
In a phone interview this afternoon, Yevgeniy Khorishko, press secretary for the Russian Embassy in Washington, confirmed the ban but said he did not know offhand when it began. He declined to discuss other details of the case.
"Very soon, there will be direct negotiations between the United States and Russian Federation about this case," he said. "Taking into consideration that these negotiations haven’t begun yet, I cannot comment on any details."
A State Department representative could not immediately be reached for comment.
Gerber said in a phone interview today that while the Russian government has never notified parties in the case about a ban on art loans, several media outlets reported in January that Russian culture minister Alexander Avdeyev had announced the ban in a radio interview.
The Associated Press reported yesterday that loans have already been frozen to several American institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
The case is before U.S. District Court Chief Judge Royce Lamberth. Chabad is also awaiting a ruling on a request filed in early April for the court to levy civil contempt sanctions against the Russian government over its failure to comply with the July 30 judgment order.