As the complications stemming from the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war continue to grow and manifest, with sanctions extending to all manner of industries and culture from Russia at home and around the world. This past week saw a mixed example of the sanctions at work with a sizeable shipment of artwork seized by Finland that was en route back to Russia.
The numerous crates of artwork seized by Finland amount to approximately €42 million. It was in three shipments and was seized by Finnish Customs late last week in Vaalimaa, a border crossing municipality, in an effort to adhere to European Union sanctions currently imposed on Russia. The action was met with strong resentment from the Russian state, senator Sergey Tsekov amounting the seizure to “theft.”
Despite the intent of the action by Finnish officials, it was deemed between the E.U. and Finland that the paintings and statues seized were to be returned to Russia, which had been out on loan to international locations and included works by Picasso, Titan, and Antonio Canova. With the return of these works to the Russian museums they call home, it sets the precedent of sharpening the existent sanctions in place and has already been touched on by the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a public statement.
As the current European Union sanctions map shows, Russia has a wealth of varying and sometimes nebulous sanctions against them. Artwork and similar cultural objects seem to fall under the category of “luxury goods”, although differences between those purchased and those loaned are unclear. What is made clear is that the restrictions in place do not actually transfer ownership of any items apprehended, instead only holding the asset until such time that sanctions are lifted.
While the artwork seized by Finland has made its way back homeward—which all art deserves, especially in times of danger—it is clear that there are imperfect aspects to the current policies in place against Russia and its cultural objects. Undoubtedly there will be continued confusion in this fraught time, and one can only hope that someday soon there won’t be a need for such situations.