LONDON Britain and Russia settled a politically tinged dispute about art last Monday, with Moscow saying it will grant permission to send Russian masterpieces for a major exhibition in London now that Britain has protected the works from seizure.
Russian authorities had threatened to scuttle the show, "From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings 1870-1925," over the lack of a law in Britain protecting the artworks from being seized in connection with lawsuits.
The Royal Academy exhibition is to include masterpieces by Henri Matisse, Vincent van Gogh and other prominent Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists that were appropriated by the Russian state after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.
Descendants of previous owners of some works have made legal bids to have them returned, and Russian officials feared further attempts while the paintings were in Britain.
The dispute over the paintings came at a time of heightened diplomatic tensions between Russia and Britain.
The case of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who was fatally poisoned by the radioactive element polonium in London last year, has badly damaged relations, with Moscow refusing to extradite the key Russian suspect wanted by Britain.
Earlier this month, Russia ordered two offices of the government-funded culture organization the British Council to close, accusing them of operating illegally. Britain's ambassador reportedly warned that the move could impede Russia's prospects for a cooperation agreement with the European Union.
In a bid to salvage the highly anticipated exhibition, due to open Jan. 26, British Culture Secretary James Purnell said he would quickly enact legislation barring seizure of artworks loaned by foreign countries to British museums and galleries.
The legislation, which had been due to take effect in February, went into force early Monday.
"I hope that bringing forward this further legislation will see the great works in the 'From Russia' exhibition open at the Royal Academy this January," Purnell said.
Russia's cultural heritage watchdog said the new law satisfies Russian concerns.
"I can say that with the early adoption of this law, our federal agency will grant permission for the temporary export of these paintings," Anatoly Vilkov, deputy chief of the Russian agency Rosokhrankultura, told Ekho Moskvy radio. "The law fully satisfies us and protects our interests."
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said officials still must study the law's details but called it "a step in the right direction," the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.
He signaled that permission would likely be granted, saying that the law "creates a fundamentally new, constructive backdrop for the conclusion of negotiations on the exhibit."
Kamynin called the resolution "an example of how concrete questions of bilateral cooperation can be resolved without politicizing them, without inflaming passions."
Royal Academy chief executive Charles Saumarez Smith said he expects the Russian agency to approve the loan of works when it reopens Jan. 8.
"We are very grateful to the Russian authorities for their cooperation," he said.