Olivier Maire  /  AP
Exhibition posters of the Gianada Museum, referring to the collection of Impressionist paintings from Moscow's Pushkin Fine Arts Museum, are pictured at the Gianada Museum in Martigny, Switzerland.
updated 11/16/2005 9:18:23 PM ET 2005-11-17T02:18:23

Switzerland on Wednesday ordered a major collection of masterpieces, including paintings by Van Gogh, Cezanne and Picasso, to be returned to Moscow’s Pushkin State Art Museum after police seized the artworks under a Swiss company’s debt dispute with Russia.

The 54 paintings had been on loan from the Pushkin for a 5-month-long exhibit at the Pierre Gianadda Foundation in Martigny, one of Switzerland’s leading art institutions. The collection — ranging from the 17th-century classical period through impressionism to 20th-century cubism and modernism — has an insured value of $1 billion, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency.

Police in the southern Swiss canton of Valais, where the museum is located, confiscated the paintings on the instructions of a Geneva bankruptcy court. The government responded within hours, ordering the paintings to be returned to Moscow.

The dispute stems from a complaint by the Swiss trading firm Noga, which claims Russia owes it more than $60 million in unpaid debts from deals in the early 1990s under the U.N.’s oil-for-food program in Iraq.

The company has been behind previous moves to seize Russian-owned jets; in 2000 it had the Russian tall ship Sedov impounded during a regatta in France. Noga also had the accounts of the Russian Embassy in Paris frozen.

Those actions ended with courts ruling in favor of Russia, which claims the debts were connected to the former Soviet Union. Noga insists the debts stem from deals signed in 1991, the year the Soviet Union dissolved, and 1992.

The Gianadda museum, which was not involved in the debt dispute, described the Pushkin collection as among “the highest artistic level of all the museum pieces we have selected.”

The exhibit of French masterworks, previously on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, had been on display in Martigny until Sunday. More than 200,000 visitors saw the Pushkin collection in Switzerland, museum officials said.

The Russian Culture Ministry reportedly ordered a halt to all talks with Swiss museums about lending them more artworks.

“I think this story will be concluded only when the paintings arrive home in our museum and we see them and evaluate their condition,” Pushkin Museum director Irina Antonova said on Russian television.

Although the museum will continue to loan its works to foreign museums, Antonova said “as far as Switzerland is concerned ... we should think about this very hard. We should be fully convinced that (the artwork) will be returned.”

Christoph Vitali, director of the Fondation Beyeler, another leading Swiss museum, said he was “horrified and baffled” by the seizure and that he feared it might affect a Matisse exhibit planned next spring with works loaned from a number of museums around the world, including the Pushkin.

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