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Clinton museum returns icons to Russia, defusing international controversy

An international arts controversy involving Russia and a small museum in central Massachusetts is over — for now.

Russia wanted its icons back for inspection. And Russia is getting its icons back.

But it isn’t certain whether the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, which owns the 16 religious paintings valued at $1 million, will ever see them again.

The museum said the Russian media’s claim the treasures had “disappeared” overseas, Russia’s appointment of a special prosecutor, and the Russian government detaining a Russian citizen affiliated with the American museum all stemmed from a miscommunication about a date.

“It’s dismaying to us that our colleagues in the museum world, the cultural sector, and the government sector in Russia seem to be concerned that we are deliberately breaking the law and that we’re mistreating cultural treasures,” said Kent Russell, curator and chief executive of the Clinton museum.


The 16 icons were sent back to Russia on Saturday for inspection, Russell said. He said he believes they will be received by the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

Though the icons were legally purchased in 2010 by the museum founder, Gordon Lankton, the Russian Ministry of Culture has designated them “culturally significant,” meaning that the items can only leave the country with a “temporary export” status and must be returned for inspection on a predetermined date.

After being on display at the Clinton museum and the Chrysler Museum of Art, in Norfolk, Va., these icons were supposed to be returned on Nov. 15 of last year, said Russell. But the museum’s request to extend the deadline until the end of the Chrysler Museum exhibit in January apparently didn’t reach the right people, he said.

The reason, he said, was the sudden resignation of the director of a private museum foundation that Lankton had set up in Moscow.


“Our communication with the Ministry of Culture and the Customs Officials was equally abruptly interrupted,” Russell said.

Russian media outlets began reporting that the icons had “disappeared” overseas.

But Russell said that the icons were actually on display at the museums in Massachusetts and Virginia, the latter drawing more than 50,000 people. Representatives from the Russian Consulate even visited and saw the icons themselves, he said.

Russian officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Russian government began legal proceedings with a special prosecutor. The foundation director who’d resigned, a Russian national, was detained for questioning. During a search of her residence, the government seized documents related to the museum — documents that the Russian customs officials required in order to allow the icons back into the country, according to Russell.

That created an impossible situation, Russell said. “We couldn’t return the icons and we were required to return the icons,” he said.

Russell said the museum eventually hired lawyers in Moscow who were able to get temporary paperwork that would allow the icons back into the country.

The museum is optimistic that the Russian Ministry of Culture will issue another temporary export license, Russell said. Otherwise, the icons would stay in Russia.

“Our only offense is that we were late in getting these icons back due to the misunderstanding. . . . It’s not as if we were trying to steal these,” he said.

Nicole Fleming can be reached at nicole.fleming@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GirlEatsBoston.