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    Museum in Clinton sending back icons to Russia

    “Donskaya Mother of God,” a Museum of Russian Icons piece that dates to 1650.
    Museum of Russian Icons
    “Donskaya Mother of God,” a Museum of Russian Icons piece that dates to 1650.

    Calling it an “international misunderstanding,” the Museum of Russian Icons, in Clinton, is returning 16 religious artworks to Moscow for inspection after Russian media outlets reported the icons had “disappeared” while in the United States.

    “This is a completely unnecessary and inexplicable situation,” said Kent Russell, curator and CEO of the museum. “Allegations in the Russian press that the icons had disappeared are completely untrue.”

    According to a statement from the museum, the museum’s founder, Gordon Lankton, purchased the icons in 2010, later sending them to the United States, where they were exhibited in Massachusetts and at the Chrysler Museum of Art, in Norfolk, Va. Russian law holds that anyone seeking to export an icon older than 100 years must first receive a temporary export permit for the object as well as agree to return the artwork to Russia on a preset date for inspection. Lankton had previously established a private museum in Moscow, which negotiated the export of the icons. According to that agreement, the 16 icons, which date from the 17th through 20th centuries, were scheduled to return for inspection on Nov. 15, 2015.

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    “During this period, our communication with Russian authorities was coordinated through the private museum foundation Mr. Lankton had established in Moscow,” said Russell, who added that communication between the foundation and the Russian Ministry of Culture “broke down” when the foundation’s executive director, Alyona Knyazeva, resigned.

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    Russell said that when he learned of the situation, he requested an extension from Russia to return the icons in January, once the Chrysler exhibition had closed.

    “They were in an exhibit with works from the British Museum, and that exhibit attracted 50,000 visitors,” said Russell. “It was a huge opportunity for us, and we thought the Russians would be delighted that their cultural patrimony was being shown to so many.”

    But Russia denied Russell’s request, referring the case instead to authorities who eventually detained the former museum foundation head. The museum, meanwhile, retained legal counsel in Russia, and Russell said the institution has been working for the past several months to make the icons available to Russian authorities for inspection.

    “We wanted to fully understand where to send them,” said Russell, who added they didn’t have an address. “When we went into negotiations, the lawyers alerted us that the ministry had already passed it on to customs and a special prosecutor. They sort of jumped the gun.”

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    Representatives of the Russian government could not immediately be reached for comment.

    Russell said that while the museum still does not know precisely where to send the icons, which in total are worth an estimated $1 million, they plan to make them available to Russian authorities within a week.

    “We regret that our warm and collegial relationships with various Russian institutions is in question at this time,” said Russell. “On two separate visits, members of the Russian consulate in New York and Washington verified that the icons were on public display.”

    Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.