“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.