Finland’s foreign ministry said Friday that it had authorized the return of three shipments of Russian art that had been on loan to museums and galleries but were impounded by Finnish customs officials on their route back to Russia.
The paintings and sculptures, valued at 42 million euros ($46 million), had been on loan from Russian museums to institutions in Italy and Japan. They were seized last weekend at Vaalimaa, a Finnish border crossing, on suspicion of contravening European Union sanctions imposed following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Hanni Hyvärinen, a spokeswoman for Finland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs, said in a telephone interview that the decision had been made in conjunction with European Union authorities. In a statement, the ministry said the union planned to exempt certain cultural objects from sanctions.
“Legislative changes will take effect on April 9, 2022, and these changes will include the ability for member states to issue permits for the export or other transfer of cultural objects that are part of official cultural cooperation to Russia,” the statement said. The European Union on Friday said that it was amending existing rules to allow an exemption for “cultural goods which are on loan in the context of formal cultural cooperation with Russia.” It did not say why such cultural goods were being exempted.
Jacob Kirkegaard, a senior fellow in the Brussels office of the research group the German Marshall Fund, said, “Often under these type of sanctions, cultural items are exempt because they are non-pecuniary and they are not related directly to the war effort.”
The seizure had posed substantial questions on how Europe might handle the return of art on loan from Russian museums, which for decades have sent some of the world’s greatest art to exhibitions that provided audiences in the West glimpses of cultural treasures that rarely travel.
Most recently, art from the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and other Russian institutions, for example, has been on display at museums in Paris, London and Rome.
Proponents of cultural exchanges as bridge-building exercises had hoped that officials would abide by the international agreements that govern such loans. But other analysts said that art closely associated with the Russian state or sanctioned individuals could be legitimate targets of sanctions that are intended to isolate Russia for a war that has targeted civilians and devastated cities.
Hyvärinen could not confirm whether the art had already left Finland.
The Russian culture minister, Olga Lyubimova, posted on the messaging app Telegram that the European authorities had “clarified that the exhibits that participated in European exhibitions do not fall into the sanctions list.”
She said the artworks had been shown at two exhibitions in Italy — in Milan and Udine — and featured work from collections at the State Hermitage and the Tsarskoye Selo, Pavlovsk and Gatchina museum reserves; the State Tretyakov Gallery; and the State Museum of the East.
Works exhibited at the Chiba City Museum in Japan had come from the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts. Lyubimova said that the Russian authorities had already begun organizing the return of the collections.
The long-term impact of the war on collaborations between Russian and European museums still remains unclear.
Since 2011, Russian state museums have refused to lend artworks to museums in the United States, fearing they might be confiscated, and some European art scholars were concerned a similar freeze could now occur between Russian museums and those in Western Europe.
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The governments of Austria, Britain, the Netherlands and Spain have already asked cultural organizations not to collaborate with Russian state museums, even if they had been planning exhibitions with them for years. Russia has also stopped some international collaborations.
Thomas C. Danziger, an art market lawyer who advises on international loans, said the release of the artworks in Finland did not calm his fears about a chilling effect on loans.
“The underlying basis for international loans of artwork is confidence in your counter party,” he said. “The seizure of these works — even though they have been released — affects the confidence of the international art world in this system.” He said that “even the slightest risk that a work of art won’t be returned by the borrower would be sufficient to kill many — if not most — prospective international loans.”
Mr. Kirkegaard said that since art can have great symbolic value, European authorities may have decided that keeping the artworks was not worth the potential propaganda value to President Vladimir V. Putin, since the seizure could “play into his narrative that this is really about the West wanting to destroy Russia.”
After customs officials stopped the works at the border, the Finnish authorities suggested the seizures were justified because the artworks might qualify as “luxury goods” — a category that the EU recently included in sanctions. But analysts said that this category of sanctions was not likely intended to cover art owned by museums.
Daniel Fried, a former State Department official who coordinated sanctions policy during the Obama administration, said art crossing borders could be seized under European sanctions rules if it were owned privately by an oligarch, or by another person or entity on the sanctions list.
But even if any artworks do qualify for sanctions, they would be subject under current European Union regulations to only an “asset freeze” — not confiscation. “You don’t get access to it anymore,” said Jonathan Hackenbroich, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.
In the same way that Western authorities have recently seized oligarchs’ yachts and other possessions, there would be no transfer of ownership of the art and it would still belong to the original owners, to be returned to them should the sanctions be lifted.
Alex Marshall contributed reporting.