Washington, 22 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - The U.S. State Department is trying hard to stay out of a quarrel between Russians and Americans over a collection of jewels and artifacts from imperial Russia.
U.S. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns Monday said pointedly "this is not the number one issue in the relationship right now," when persistently questioned by reporters.
Their questions even reached Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who said the dispute is over a contract with a private party and thus not of direct concern to the State Department.
But the doggedness of Washington reporters reflected a growing public interest in the issue which has turned a truck on a busy Washington street near the White House into a tourist attraction.
It contains a precious cargo -- part of the collection which is supposed to be touring American cities as an art exhibit called "Jewels of the Romanovs: Treasures of the Russian Imperial Court."
But at the moment, most of it is sitting in the truck -- a large, air-conditioned, moving van that has been immobilized for six days, wedged in at both ends by Russian embassy cars, sent to prevent it from leaving.
The van is packed with treasures and court artifacts from the Romanov dynasty, including royal portraits, icons, ceremonial gowns and letters from the last of the Czars.
Priceless jewels from the collection are locked somewhere else in a vault, no one knows where.
A spokeswoman for Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art which displayed the exhibit, said the jewels, including the world's largest table-cut diamond, would remain at a secret location until the dispute is settled.
At the State Department, Burns said the United States wants to see contractual obligations honored and the dispute resolved but is not acting as a mediator.
Resorting to the time-honored diplomatic practice of making hairline linguistic distinctions, he said a State Department official has spoken to Russian embassy diplomats and the American organizers of the exhibit and made some suggestions.
But, Burns said the United States is acting as a consultant and not as a mediator because the dispute is not between the United States and Russian governments but with a private group.
However, the Russian government is involved and the art exhibit did have the gloss of official U.S. approval.
It was opened in February by U.S. Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin to commemorate the 125th anniversary of a visit to America made by Grand Duke Alexis.
More than 80,000 visitors have each paid $9 to see the Romanov treasures, making the exhibit hugely successful.
Now it is supposed to move on to the city of Houston in Texas. But its Russian co-sponsor -- the Organizing Committee of the Ministry of Culture -- suddenly changed its mind last Wednesday, saying Russia's national treasures could not be put at risk and that the exhibit had to return to Moscow for celebrations of the capital's 850th anniversary.
American co-sponsors -- the American-Russian Cultural Cooperation Foundation (ARCCF) -- said they have a deal with the Russian government to tour the exhibit in four U.S. cities. But the Russians deny there is a signed contract.
Meanwhile, the Corcoran Gallery is caught in the middle. It did have a signed contract but only with the ARCCF, not with the Russian Ministry of Culture directly. So it has locked up the jewels and called in the lawyers.
Corcoran spokeswoman Ann Rothschild says the gallery doesn't know to whom it should release the gems and will keep them until it sees a signed agreement from both Russian and American co-sponsors.
Burns said the two sides are now talking to each other with lawyers present. With a tinge of exasperation, he said surely if the United States and Russia can detarget their missiles, work together in space, and cooperate in Bosnia, their cultural experts can decide whether the art exhibit will go to Texas or back to Russia.
"This is not an issue of war and peace, or life and death, it's the fate of an art exhibit," he said.