How to Harmonize With Customs

MTSiriol Hugh-Jones forgot to declare her cello the first time she brought it to Russia and could not take it out until it was valued.
Foreign buyers in Moscow's art and antiques salons need to think ahead or risk unpleasant surprises at the airport. The cash value of your purchase is unlikely to be a problem, since recently introduced rules allow the duty-free export of valuables worth up to $10,000 per traveler, provided that you have a receipt to prove the value. The headaches start in the less quantifiable realm of culture.

Items that are more than 50 years old will be confiscated by customs unless the owner has a certificate from the Culture Ministry permitting their export. Cultural artifacts over 100 years old are practically forbidden for a private traveler to take out of the country.

But any paintings, books or other artifacts -- even those made yesterday -- could land you in trouble if a customs officer suspects that he is looking at "particularly valuable objects of the cultural heritage of the peoples of the Russian Federation," as stated in the 1993 law that governs cultural exports. It is also important to realize that non-Russian art objects will have problems leaving Russia, if customs suspects that you obtained them here.

The rule can lead to trauma if you bring in some personal item of value and get challenged at customs on the way out. The golden rule is to put any such item into a declaration when you arrive, get it stamped at incoming customs, and show the declaration when you leave.

"I forgot to declare my cello the first time I brought it in, and found that I could not take it out again without getting it valued at the Glinka Museum," said Siriol Hugh-Jones, a Briton who takes private cello lessons in Moscow.

Hugh-Jones said that the simplest way to bring a musical instrument in and out of Russia is by carrying photographs of the instrument, which can be stamped by customs on the way in and verified against the instrument on the way out.

The cultural export rules are a potentially serious problem for musicians who play vintage instruments. But in the case of resident musicians, the Culture Ministry issues an unlimited "passport" for the instrument. Visiting musicians need only remember to declare their instrument, including distinguishing marks, when they enter the country.

A manager at the Moscow souvenir emporium Arbat Kollektsiya said that Russian dolls, ceramics and other souvenirs available at Arbat Kollektsiya and similar stores and stalls are familiar sights to customs officers, and should cause no problems. But the same manager admitted that paintings, even those bought in souvenir shops and from street artists, are a trickier proposition. That was confirmed by a Culture Ministry official with responsibility for permitting cultural artifacts to leave the country.

"The customs officer might take it on faith that you bought the work from an Arbat artist and it was painted yesterday, but he might say that he knows nothing about art and that you could have written on yesterday's date yourself, and that it must go for additional expert assessment," said Viktor Petrakov, deputy head of the department for preservation of historical valuables at the Culture Ministry, in a recent interview.

To avoid such pleasant circumstances, a traveler needs prior documents from the Culture Ministry. That will take one day or several days, depending on whether or not officials at the ministry decide that your item has "cultural value."

Record of purchase, or a legally witnessed deed of gift, is one of the Culture Ministry's requirements for export permission. Other requirements are two photographs of the object, as well as copies of your passport and visa.

In some cases, the ministry may call in the object itself for a visual assessment by experts, who will approve or decline a special export certificate. Objects more than 50 years old need such a certificate regardless of their cultural value.

If your object is less than 50 years old and Culture Ministry officials decide that it is merely "an object with cultural application," then a simple one-page form can be stamped at once, attesting that the object does not come under the 1993 law, and can be freely exported.

The stamped form is the usual documentation for contemporary art items, including paintings, bought directly from artists at street markets or in galleries. Galleries dealing in contemporary art will sometimes do the job of getting ministry approval on behalf of the customer.

"We will do it ourselves at no extra charge for someone who buys pictures in our gallery, and we can also obtain export permission for pictures that have been bought elsewhere, although there will be a charge for that service," said Murtuz Magomedov, an artist from Dagestan, who owns the Murtuz studio gallery in central Moscow.

Some legal firms and international removal agencies, oriented to expatriates working in Russia, also offer services helping with obtaining the relevant export documentation from the Culture Ministry.

For example, Petrograd, a St. Petersburg business support agency, offers the service for $95 via the Internet, but refused to discuss it for the purposes of this article. In Moscow, a specialist at Intelorg Worldwide Movers said that the company can provide the service, so long as a customer has a written record of how he or she obtained the relevant object in Russia.