Bill protecting works of art lent by foreign institutions passes US Senate

Supporters say legislation will encourage cultural exchange, but opponents fear it will block restitution of works seized in countries like Russia


As the role of Russian hackers in the US presidential election comes under scrutiny, a bill protecting works of art on loan to the US from foreign institutions from seizure was passed by the Senate on Saturday, 10 December and is now waiting to be signed into law by President Obama. The legislation could end a years-long cultural cold war with Russia, which has refused to loan works since 2010 due to lawsuits filed in the US over objects seized during the Bolshevik Revolution.

The Foreign Cultural Exchange Jurisdictional Immunity Clarification Act has been firmly backed by the US Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD). Its executive director Christine Anagnos said: “The exchange of works of art between countries supports cultural understanding and enables Americans to experience works that they otherwise might never have a chance to see in person.” Following a visit by Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, to the US in October, the museum posted on its website that the bill’s passage “will make it possible to restore museum exchanges between the countries”.

But opponents say it would allow Russia to exhibit art and cultural property that was forcibly seized during the Bolshevik Revolution and block the heirs of the original owners from filing claims in US courts. The bill exempts objects that were looted from 1933 to 1945 by the Nazi regime and its allies, and for any works taken by a foreign government after 1900 "as part of a systematic campaign of coercive confiscation or misappropriation of works from members of a targeted and vulnerable group”. Critics say the latter definition is too loose, and it could be argued the Bolsheviks’ seizure of private collections of art and cultural heritage as government property was not aimed at a specific group.