The Russian invasion of Ukraine has called into question the status of artworks currently on loan to public institutions from Russian lenders or being transported through countries which have condemned President Putin’s actions. A prominent example in the UK is the first imperial Easter egg made by Carl Fabergé for Tsar Alexander III in 1884-85, now on show at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s exhibition ‘Fabergé in London: Romance to Revolution’. This was loaned to the V&A by a foundation owned by Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian billionaire whom the UK government sanctioned in mid-March. Several other items on display have been borrowed from the Moscow Kremlin Museums and St Petersburg’s Fabergé Museum.

Against this backdrop, the new Cultural Objects (Protection from Seizure) Bill has continued to make its way quietly through the Parliamentary process. A recent House of Lords debate over the Bill reflects the delicate position in which borrowing institutions now find themselves in respect of objects owned by or associated with sanctioned individuals and states. At present, objects and artworks from overseas on temporary loan to an approved museum or gallery in the UK are immune from seizure by the UK courts while in the UK for up to twelve months. The existing immunity from seizure regime ensures that UK institutions can borrow important items for display in the UK even if they do not have a complete ownership history, as long as certain criteria are met. Under the existing legislation, an extension to the twelve-month period is only available where an item is in the UK for the purposes of repair.

The new Bill would allow the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to authorise an extension of the immunity from seizure for up to three months, if a public institution is unable to return an item which has entered the UK with immunity from seizure within twelve months due to “unforeseen circumstances”. Multiple individual three-month extensions could be granted consecutively in relation to the same object. No guidance on what would constitute “unforeseen circumstances” has been published but parliamentary debate has mentioned the coronavirus pandemic and the Icelandic volcanic eruption in 2010 as examples.

It seems unlikely at this time that the UK government’s sanctions regime would override immunity from seizure granted under existing UK legislation. However, any risk at all seems probable to dissuade lenders, and institutions will be conscious of reputational damage should they continue to associate with sanctioned individuals and the Russian state. On 7 April, Finland initially seized three shipments containing €42m of artwork from Russian museums due to suspected breaches of government sanctions, though it appears that the Finnish authorities have acknowledged Russia’s ownership and are now taking steps to return the objects. Taking a different approach, France has just publicly reconfirmed its commitment to protecting masterpieces from the Morozov collection on loan from Russia to the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, and to returning them to Russia on schedule on 15 May.

In relation to the Bill more generally, it is also noteworthy that parliamentary debate has not made any mention of Nazi-era claims for artwork on loan to UK institutions from overseas. The rationale behind the existing immunity from seizure legislation is described by Mel Stride, the MP sponsoring the new Bill, as “in response to growing international concern that works of art were in danger of being seized while abroad by those who claimed that they were owed money by a foreign state or because of territorial disputes between countries.” However, this is not the whole story: legal claims for artworks lost or misappropriated during the Nazi era are another common cause of claims for artworks. By way of illustration, every picture registered for immunity from seizure which featured in the National Gallery’s exhibition ‘Nicolaes Maes: Dutch Master of the Golden Age’ has incomplete Nazi-era provenance. It is also worth noting that claims for cultural objects removed from their countries of origin during the colonial era and claims in relation to illegally excavated and/or exported archaeological, historical or ethnographic items are also prevented by immunity from seizure legislation.

The policy reason behind the immunity from seizure regime – to expand the range of artworks which can enter the UK temporarily for public exhibition – is admirable. However, certain downsides have not been addressed during consideration of the new Bill, most notably the risk of stifling valid claims for restitution or reparations. Unless the grounds for extending immunity from seizure are transparent, then allowing the Secretary of State discretion to extend immunity from seizure essentially indefinitely could potentially lead to abuses and deprive claimants of the opportunity to recover property and access to justice.

On the other hand, even one instance of a claim brought in the UK for an artwork which had been granted immunity from seizure could undermine international lenders’ confidence in the regime. This could reduce the number of important artworks entering the UK for public display, reduce cultural opportunities for the UK public, and restrict public institutions’ revenue from exhibitions.