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Claim for slice of the action at LACMA as new show uses paintings subject to restitution claims

A French plaintiff says he deserves a percentage of exhibition ticket sales at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art because the works on display were taken from his grandfather after the Russian Revolution

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is exhibiting 76 paintings on loan from the State Pushkin Museum in Moscow, including 26 from the Sergei Ivanovich Shchukin Collection, despite the filing of a lawsuit which seeks to bar the paintings from public display. The collection, including works by Van Gogh, Matisse, Monet, Manet, Picasso and others, was nationalised by the Russian government in 1918.

The lawsuit was filed against LACMA on 15 July. The paintings are, however, immune to US court action under a grant from the State Department made before they entered the US. The grant was made under a 1965 federal programme designed to preclude any lawsuits affecting works of art that are loaned to US museums from overseas and that are approved for immunity by the State Department.

The plaintiff, Shchukin’s grandson André Marc Delocque-Fourcaud, is a resident and citizen of France. He is claiming to own nine-sixteenths of 25 of the works, as Shchukin’s partial heir. The exhibition, which was organised by the Pushkin Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (MFAH), has been in the US since December 2002, first at the MFAH and subsequently at the High Museum in Atlanta.

LACMA said through its general counsel, Thaddeus Stauber, that it was confident the suit would fail because of the federal immunity grant and because US courts will decline to hear a case that involves an act of a foreign sovereign State.

“The plaintiff has been pressing this issue unsuccessfully in various courts in Europe for more than 50 years, and in each case the State Pushkin Museum has been found to be the lawful owner” of the works of art, Mr Stauber said. “This is a political dispute between the Shchukin family and the Russian government, and a lawsuit in an American court is not the appropriate way to resolve it.”

Before filing the complaint, attorneys for Mr Delocque-Fourcaud had twice approached LACMA “demanding a share of exhibition revenues” from tickets and merchandise sales, the museum said.

The complaint, filed in federal court in the Central District of California, states that no compensation was ever paid to Shchukin or his family for the 1918 seizure of the works of art, which were divided between the Pushkin and the Hermitage Museum.

Mr Delocque-Fourcaud alleges that in requesting federal immunity for the borrowed paintings, MFAH failed to disclose his claim to own them, and that the immunity was granted only as a result of that failure. As a result, the immunity grant should be deemed “null and void.” The lawsuit seeks to enjoin LACMA’s exhibition of the Shchukin paintings, and seeks treble the amount of Mr Delocque-Fourcaud’s alleged damages resulting from LACMA’s “receipt of stolen property”, to be determined at trial. Mr Delocque-Fourcaud also seeks restitution of the museum’s “unjust enrichment” derived through exploiting the paintings.

The US Attorney’s Office is expected to intervene on behalf of the State Department to enforce the immunity grant and seek dismissal of the case, Mr Stauber said. “This is not a legitimate threat to any foreign lender,” he said, adding that the federal immunity grant “provides blanket immunity from the plaintiff’s legal action.”

The federal Immunity From Seizure Act bars any US or State court from issuing any judicial process, judgment or order that would deprive a US non-profit borrowing institution of custody or control of a work of art that has been approved by the State Department. The works must be shown to be of cultural significance and the exhibition must be in the national interest.

The State Department “was well aware” of the Shchukin family’s “unsuccessful” claim to the 25 paintings when it granted the immunity, Mr Stauber said.

As a second ground for dismissal, LACMA will argue that the Russian nationalisation of private property cannot be adjudicated by US courts because the US recognised the post-revolution Russian government.

Actions of that government were non-justiciable acts of State, Mr Stauber said. The case is different from Nazi loot cases, he said, because the US never recognised the Nazi government.

Sergei Shchukin’s “little museum”

Sergei Shchukin (1854-1936) was one of the great art collectors of pre-revolutionary Moscow and was largely responsible for introducing Russia to the work of the Impressionists. Coming from a wealthy mercantile family, he began collecting at the age of 40 in order to decorate his palace at No. 8 Antipyevsky Lane. On a trip to Paris in 1897 he bought Monet’s “Lilacs”, ultimately purchasing 13 of the artist’s works. He also acquired canvases by Degas, Pissarro, Renoir and others. Later he moved on to the post-Impressionists Cézanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin. After 1910 he began buying and commissioning works from Picasso and Matisse, the latter decorating the staircase of his Moscow palace. In 1907 he decided to present his collection to the city of Moscow in memory of his wife, and, from 1909 he would personally guide the public through his house on Sundays which became known as “the little museum of Matisse and Picasso.” In 1918 his collection was nationalised by the Soviet government and Shchukin offered the humiliating position of custodian, relegated to living in a gate house. In the same year he fled to Paris where he died in 1936. The other great collector of French art in Moscow was Ivan Morozov (1871-1921). After buying works by artists such as Cézanne, Bonnard, Van Gogh, and Gauguin, his collection was also appropriated by the Soviet government in 1918 and from 1928 to 1948 was merged with Shchukin’s pictures in the State Museum of New Western Art. It was subsequently divided between the Pushkin Museum and the Hermitage museum in Leningrad.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Claim for slice of the action at LACMA'