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Pushkin Paintings Seized, Let Go

Paul Gauguin's painting "Are You Jealous?" was part of the Swiss exhibition. Pushkin Museum Of Fine Arts
First he went after Russian government bank accounts, then a giant sailing ship, only to have both slip out of his hands. Two fighter jets later escaped his grasp, but controversial Swiss businessman Nessim Gaon struck again this week when Swiss authorities seized four truckloads of paintings from the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts worth an estimated $1 billion.

But Gaon's company, Geneva-based trading firm Noga, lost out once more in its attempt to claim unpaid debts when the Swiss government ordered the release Wednesday of the 54 paintings owned by the Russian government, including works by Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet.

The Swiss government invoked a constitutional clause regarding national interests to reverse a Tuesday court ruling ordering the seizure of the paintings in connection with Noga's long-standing claims against the Russian government.

"The responsible officials have been ordered to release the paintings immediately," Swiss Foreign Ministry spokesman Lars Knuchel said by telephone from Bern on Wednesday evening.

The paintings were seized in Geneva and on the Swiss-German border near Basel at around 8 p.m. Tuesday after they had been packed up following a five-month exhibition in the Swiss town of Martigny, said Igor Petrov, spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Bern.

"There were four trucks carrying the paintings," Petrov said by telephone. "Three were detained at the border going to Germany, and one in Geneva going to France."

The dispute dates back to 1991, when Noga signed a deal to import consumer goods and agricultural products to Russia in exchange for oil. Some $1.5 billion in contracts later, the relationship between the company and Russia soured, and Noga began pursuing the government through the courts.

Gaon won numerous court victories, largely because Russia had waived the usual right of governments to sovereign immunity when signing the contracts. In the mid-1990s, Gaon got Switzerland and Luxembourg to freeze $700 million in Russian assets, and then in 1997 a Stockholm arbitration court awarded him $23 million.

But Gaon said he still could not collect the debt. So Noga went to the French courts and won a 450 million franc ($63 million) ruling in Paris in March 2000 under which the French authorities could seize Russian government assets over the debt. In May 2000, France started freezing government bank accounts, and in July 2000, the Sedov, the world's largest sailing ship, was seized in Brest, France. The seizures were later overturned by French courts. Russia claims the debts dated back to the Soviet Union.

In May 2001, a Paris court of appeals ruled in favor of Noga, and a month later, two Russian fighter jets at the Paris Air Show literally flew away to avoid seizure by French officials. In 2003, a French court ruled that the disputed Sukhoi and MiG were military planes and thus could not be arrested and sold to cover debts.

On Wednesday, Noga claimed that Russia owed the company $895.7 million.

Russia "continues to neglect its obligations, and this is hurting its image as a law-abiding state," Noga said Wednesday in an e-mailed statement, which was sent out before the Swiss government stepped in. The return of the paintings to the Pushkin Museum depends "on the decision of the Russian Federation to finally honor its dealings with Noga," the statement said.

A woman who answered the phone at Noga's Geneva office Wednesday evening said no one was available to comment on the Swiss government's scrapping of the court order. Calls for comment to Noga's lawyer, Alan Veuillet, went unreturned Wednesday evening.

The paintings had been on display at the Pierre Gianadda Foundation in Martigny since June 13, and the exhibition ended Sunday, according to the foundation's web site.

The collection includes the "Portrait of Doctor Rey" by Van Gogh; "Are You Jealous?" by Gauguin; "Lady With Fan" and "The Violin" by Picasso; "La Grenouillere" and the "Portrait of the Actress Jeanne Samary" by Renoir; and "The Bathers" and "The Man With the Pipe" by Cezanne, the web site said.

An unidentified Swiss official told Interfax on Wednesday that the paintings were insured for more than $1 billion.

Irina Antonova, head of the Pushkin Museum, said she was pleased with the Swiss government's decision to step in, but that it remained to be seen if the paintings had suffered any damage during the seizure.

"Much depends on the climate conditions in which they were kept," Antonova said in an interview with Channel One television on Wednesday evening. "We don't know yet, but we hope everything will be fine."

Petrov said that the temperature control in the trucks to keep the paintings cool had been turned off for several hours during the seizure.

The Foreign Ministry, in a statement on its web site, said it had received assurances from Swiss officials that the paintings would not be harmed.

The seizure of the paintings sparked outrage among the Russian political elite Wednesday, including heated words on the floor of the State Duma from Deputy Duma Speaker Lyubov Sliska and LDPR head Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

"This company will torture us for another 20 to 30 years, even if it doesn't get anything," Zhirinovsky said of Noga in comments broadcast on NTV. "There will be fear for any of our exhibitions and any of our property abroad. We should have taken care of this problem long ago."

Sliska called the impounding "a blatant provocation."

"We're talking about a company that has repeatedly tried to take over property that it doesn't own," Sliska said, Itar-Tass reported. "Let it settle legal questions with the people who owe it money and not lay claim to the Russian government's cultural treasures."

Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov told reporters Wednesday that "world art treasures cannot be hostages of legal quarrels."

"These paintings are kept in Russia, in Moscow, but they are the achievements of all citizens of the planet, and they are inviolable," Gryzlov said, Interfax reported.

In a statement posted on its web site Wednesday before the paintings' release, the Culture and Press Ministry said it was ordering all Russian museums to stop negotiations with Swiss partners about sending exhibitions to Switzerland.

Innokenty Alexeyev, a Moscow-based expert in art law, said the seizure of the paintings was doomed from the beginning and that Noga was simply using the "clockwork" formality of the Swiss legal system to buy time.

But Alexeyev said Noga did have some grounds for redress given the messy business deals in the 1990s, and that Russia would be better off settling with Noga for a reasonable sum rather than being subject to constant suits from the company and continued seizures of government property abroad.

"It would be easier just to meet with Noga peacefully and settle the matter," Alexeyev said. "It's nonsense. The damage to [Russia's] reputation is more costly than the $70 million it would take to settle."

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