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A Jewel of Russian Absurdity?

Exhibit: Concern for security is one of the excuses given by officials for entangling the gems in a comic opera impasse that may halt the U.S. tour.


WASHINGTON — Even in the days when the Romanovs reigned in Russia, government bureaucrats were so nervous about the royal family's fabulous crown jewels that the czar and czarina had to return them to the State Diamond Fund the day after they wore them for a glittering ball or dinner or ceremony.

The obsession with security has lasted so long that this year, when the jewels were allowed to travel to the United States for the first time, the Russians refused to let a single American hand touch them as they were laid out in displays at the Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington.

Now, concern for security is one of the excuses given by Russian officials for entangling the jewels in a comic opera impasse that may halt the tour of the exhibition to three other American museums, including the San Diego Museum of Art beginning Aug. 16.

As a result of the Russian antics, the jewels remain in a vault at the Corcoran, an enormous moving van crammed with other treasures of the Romanovs is stuck on the grounds of the Russian Embassy, and the Russian vice minister of culture has just flown in to see if he can negotiate a way out of the morass.

The Russians have offered a number of reasons for their stubbornness. But some Americans who are involved believe the real motivation is greed. Russian officials want a larger share of the proceeds than they had accepted in the original agreements.

The key to negotiations may depend on where the jewels are. Timothy Dickinson, an American lawyer representing the Russians, does not want to negotiate while the jewels remain in the Corcoran vault. "I hope to meet with [lawyers for the other side] as soon as the jewels are conveyed to the embassy," he said.

But Corcoran Director David C. Levy has said his institution contracted with the American-Russian Cultural Cooperation Foundation for use of the jewels and cannot give them up to the embassy unless the foundation agrees. The foundation, an independent organization that wants to foster better Russian-American relations, is unlikely to agree. The impasse may have to be settled by the courts.


Many observers in Washington do not know whether to laugh or cry at the absurdity of the problem.

The exhibition attracted 80,000 visitors to the small museum near the White House, featuring such marvels as a pin with a blue diamond that may have been cut from the same stone as the Hope Diamond, as well as a ruby believed to have been owned by Julius Caesar.

The exhibit packed in hundreds at a time, with viewers moving to glass case after glass case filled with myriad jewels: tiaras fit for a Beverly Hills High prom, necklaces with kumquat-size diamonds, earrings that could do permanent lobe-stretch damage, custom-made gem-sprinkled military decorations, and an exquisite miniature of Peter the Great.

Among the crowds were a disproportionate number of blue-haired ladies of a certain age and social class, who sighed heavily at the better pieces, to all appearances imagining what it would be like to wear those glorious jewels--and regretting the loss of all those imperial balls that died with the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the murder of the last czar and his family.

Museum officials believe the Russians really want the exhibit to go on to scheduled stops in Houston, San Diego and Memphis, Tenn. But all the bickering could lead to a hasty return of the treasures to Moscow.

Feelings were much cheerier last year when the Russian government asked the foundation to undertake sponsorship of a tour of the jewels and other imperial treasures--all valued at more than $100 million--in the United States beginning in 1997. Corcoran officials argued that more time was needed to mount such a show. But the Russians insisted that the tour begin in the year of the 125th anniversary of a major event in Russian-American history.

Ironically, that event is one almost never mentioned in American history books: the 1871-1872 tour of the United States by the Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich, the fourth son of Czar Alexander II.

Relations between the Russian government and the foundation were so good that the foundation began its fund-raising with a ball at the Russian Embassy in November. In all, the foundation raised more than $500,000 for the tour.

The foundation itself has a distinguished board of Americans, including former Sen. Howard H. Baker (R-Tenn.) and hotel magnate J. Willard Marriott Jr. Former Rep. James W. Symington (D-Mo.) is the chairman of the board.

But the mood soured--and it is not clear why. After the Corcoran crated all the treasures and packed everything but the jewels in a moving van, director Levy received a fax from Russian Ambassador Yuli M. Vorontsov asking that everything be delivered to the Russian Embassy rather than Houston.

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