Fabergé in London – Russia sanctions and immunity from seizure

Posted on: May 25, 2022 by

On 8 May, the exhibition Fabergé in London: Romance to Revolution concluded at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. Several of the pieces on display had been lent by collections in Russia, namely those of the Kremlin in Moscow and the Hermitage in St Petersburg. The exhibition, which opened on 20 November 2021, began in a very different political environment. On 24 February 2022, Russian forces invaded Ukraine: western countries, including the UK, thereafter took a series of forceful economic measures aimed at pressuring Russia to cease its military operations in Ukraine.

A number of sanctions have been introduced in the UK aimed at curbing trade with Russia and targeting specific individuals who support Vladmir Putin’s regime (as at 25 May, the sanctions list includes over 1200 individuals and 150 entities). The trade sanctions target the export of certain goods from the UK to Russia, which include military goods, critical-industry goods and technology, energy-related goods, as well as ‘luxury goods’, a category which comprises artworks. This would mean that, as a general rule, no one (including museums) would be able to export such goods to Russia. However, there exists a licensing system whereby exporters are able to apply for an export licence from the Department for International Trade that would permit the export of ‘borrowed cultural artefacts, loaned objects or artworks subject to temporary export licences, e.g. loaned artwork’ (see Regulation 46B under the Russia (Sanctions)(EU Exit)(Amendment)(No. 8) Regulations 2022). Such a licence is presumably what would be necessary for the V&A to export the loaned pieces back to Russia.

In relation to the sanctions against designated persons, one of the many sanctioned individuals is Viktor Vekselberg, the man behind the private Fabergé Museum in St Petersburg. His company, Lamesa Arts, owns two works that were lent by the Museum (through the Link of Times Foundation that operates the Museum) to the V&A exhibition: a Rothschild cigar box and, more importantly, the first ever Fabergé Egg from 1885, made by Fabergé for the family of Tsar Alexander III. It is not as ornate as the more celebrated Eggs that followed: made of gold covered in enamel to resemble a real egg (i.e. it is not coloured like the others, but a simple white) it contains a golden ‘yoke’ inside, as well as a small golden hen (see the image top left, from the V&A immunity from seizure listing).

For the purposes of the exhibition, the V&A listed 26 objects to be protected from seizure under Part 6 of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007. As an ‘approved institution’ under the Act, the V&A is thus able to ensure the immunity of objects brought in on loan that are published on its website according to regulations under the Act. The immunity prevents all forms of seizure, confiscation or forfeiture, as well as any other measure relating to the ‘custody or control’ of an object pursuant to criminal investigations or civil proceedings (see section 135 of the Act).

The listing included six objects from the Kremlin and three from the Hermitage. Three of the Kremlin pieces are shown above: a Flower ‘Pansy’ (1904) and two Easter Eggs (from 1904-6 and 1908 respectively), with images from the V&A’s immunity listing. These would all therefore be protected from seizure and the other confiscatory measures mentioned above under UK law, as well as by the general protection for state-owned property under the State Immunity Act 1978. Under international law there is also an accepted custom that state-owned cultural objects in a foreign jurisdiction for the purposes of a loan are immune from seizure (as set out in a UN Convention, a Declaration by the Council of Europe and accepted by commentators). I mentioned this often-forgotten custom recently in a piece by Craig Simpson for The Telegraph.

The listing also included the two works lent by Lamesa through the Link of Times Foundation. This material would benefit from immunity under UK law, though it is not additionally protected under any principle of international law. Could the sanctions override the immunity? The answer is complex, as it might depend on a judicial determination of the meaning of ‘seizure and confiscation’ under the 2007 Act (and related terms) in order to see whether protection under the Act could withstand the asset freezing provided for in the sanctions. Under the sanctions regime, the asset freeze entails a freezing of funds and ‘economic resources’, the latter of which can apply to ‘non-monetary assets, such as property or vehicles’ (see the UK government sanctions guidance). Could this conceivably apply to an object like a Fabergé Egg on loan?

The outcome would likely depend on whether the UK authorities had the intention of enforcing the sanctions in relation to an object from ‘Fabergé in London’ in the first place. The government set out a position in March, four weeks into Russia’s war, through Lord Parkinson (Under-Secretary of State for Arts) in the House of Lords: while new loans of objects from state-sponsored or state-funded Russian institutions were not to be recommended, for ‘cultural objects currently on loan from Russian institutions, it is for the borrowing museum concerned to decide whether it is appropriate to keep them on display and to arrange for their return at the appropriate time’ (see Hansard from 18 March 2022 and the report from Charles Russell Speechlys). So it might appear that, amidst the complex interplay between sanctions and immunity, government may be walking a delicate line by refraining from direct interference. This may reflect the sentiment – shared by many – that cultural objects on loan should remain above the fray of larger geopolitical disputes between states. Or it might hide a somewhat more contentious reality.

* IAL recently ran a short online course on immunity from seizure. This will be running again for our friends in Australia and New Zealand in July. *