The Russian Ministry of Culture is demanding 16 pieces of art from the Museum of Russian Icons be returned to Moscow, according to the museum's CEO and curator, Kent Russell. 

“We regret that our warm, and collegial relationships with various Russian institutions is in question at this time," Russell said in a statement. "This is a completely unnecessary and inexplicable situation." 

The museum, in Clinton, Mass., acknowledges that it missed a deadline last fall to return the works for routine inspection, as required by the country's antiquities laws. At that time the icons had been loaned to the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va., where they were on view in a temporary exhibition titled “From Russia With Love.”

Russell says his museum requested an extension from Russian authorities allowing it to return the works after the Chrysler show closed. He expected the extension be granted given that Russia’s ambassador to the United States had visited the show. That request was denied, and the Ministry has turned the case over to customs authorities and a special prosecutor who’ve threatened punitive action. What’s more, Russell says, Russian media has erroneously reported that the works have gone missing.  

The Museum of Russian Icons has now hired a large Muscovite law firm specializing in cultural patrimony to represent its interests. And Russell said the museum’s ownership of the works, valued at $1 million, is not in dispute. It plans to return the icons for Russian review by the end of next week. As for what happens next, Russell would only say, “The next move is unpredictable."

The museum, founded in 1990 by retired plastics magnate Gordon Lankton, features more than a thousand of the religious artworks, the largest group outside of Russia. 

Learn more about the Museum of Russian Icons in this Open Studiofeature: