November 16, 2005

Russia says Swiss seized priceless art

By Oliver Bullough

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian authorities alleged on Wednesday
priceless artworks from a Moscow museum had been impounded in
Switzerland, apparently at the request of a Swiss firm that has
long claimed repayment of debts from Russia.

A Swiss Foreign Ministry spokesman declined immediate
comment. A Geneva legal firm acting for the Swiss firm Noga,
which has pursued Russia for what it has said are unpaid debts
of some $800 million since at least 1993, also declined

The collection includes paintings by masters Pablo Picasso,
Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh and had been
on show in the Swiss town of Martigny for five months.

Russian state television said the touring art collection
from Moscow's Pushkin museum had been due to leave Switzerland
but had been held up at the border.

"Lawyers and the Russian embassy in Switzerland are taking
all necessary measures to solve the situation," a Moscow
foreign ministry spokesman said.

Noga, a trading company, has in the past caused the
temporary seizure of a ship, warplanes and diplomatic property
in a series of bids to secure payment of debts linked to deals
for the supply of food in exchange for oil in 1991-2. It has
demanded immediate payment of $63 million.

Russian officials reacted angrily and all museums were told
by the Federal Agency of Culture and Film, the owner of the
pictures, to halt talks with Swiss organizations about sending
exhibitions abroad.

"The arrest of the 54 pictures ... at the request of the
company Noga is a gross violation of international law for the
protection of cultural treasures," said the agency on its Web
site (

"The agency ... has appealed to the Swiss authorities with
a request to end the chaos surrounding these unique cultural

The director of the Pushkin Museum, Irina Antonova, warned
the works could be damaged.

"The Swiss authorities have absolutely illegally taken
passports and telephones from the workers who are escorting the
exhibition," she told the state-owned First Channel.

She said the drivers of the trucks carrying the pictures
had been forced to turn off the machines controlling the
humidity and atmosphere around the artworks.

"The pictures in their boxes could be harmed by the changes
that will inevitably take place in these trucks," she said.

Noga has secured court seizures in France, Sweden and
Luxembourg but has never managed to gain the cash it says it is