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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

EU Employee Case Closed by Customs

Police officers investigating the alleged illegal removal of cultural artifacts from Russia by an employee of the European Commission have decided to close the case after a four-month investigation.


Customs officers impounded a wall clock, painted plates, an icon case and an 18th-century book during an inspection of luggage belonging to French citizen Max Gunelle last November at the Butovo customs checkpoint outside Moscow.


All the items apart from the book were dated by experts as early 20th-century and said to be of "great historical and artistic value," a spokesman for the Moscow Customs Committee said Monday. They have been released into the care of a Moscow museum and the Russian Academy of Sciences.


Like all pre-1945 art objects, such items can be taken out of the country only with permission from the Culture Ministry. Fines of up to 200 times the value of the items may be imposed for unauthorized export, depending on the size and significance of the shipment.


Gunelle had returned to France in August before the inspection and is therefore unlikely to face charges, said customs officials, even if he were to return to Russia.


"The objects remained in Russia; the person left," said Sergei Milokostov, spokesman for the Moscow Customs Committee. "This is probably an end to the matter."


Milokostov was unable to give further details of the circumstances of the customs check of Gunelle's luggage, which was being trucked out of the country by a private trucking firm, but said Gunelle's status as an employee of the European Union complicated matters. Only when there is reasonable grounds for a luggage search are officers permitted to examine diplomatic loads, said Milokostov.


Gunelle's colleagues at the office of the European Union's developmental program were critical of the attention focused on the incident. "It's all nonsense," said one employee who did not give her name. "This was just a few things he picked up while he was in Moscow. I doubt he really knew what they were."


The determination of Russian authorities to safeguard the nation's heritage results in frequent confiscation of such items. In many cases, visitors to Russia quickly part with newly acquired souvenirs bought in tourist centers such as the Old Arbat district, where old icons and other antiques are often available.


Customs officers also come across more spectacular shipments of antiques, such as the million-dollar load of 18th- and 19th-century furniture, carpets, statuettes and icons intercepted early last year leaving Moscow by truck as the personal effects of Italian diplomats. A year later, the incident is still being investigated, said Milokostov.


Conversely, as the climate stabilizes in Russia, antiques rushed out of the country during the Bolshevik Revolution have begun their clandestine journey home again.


"New Russians are buying things at foreign auctions and bringing them back," said Milokostov, citing the seizure last year of a $1.5 million haul shipped as office furniture from the United States.