Arts and Design

Bitterly contested trove of Crimean gold artefacts must return to Ukraine, not Russia, Dutch court rules

A Dutch appeals court has ruled that Ukraine has legal control over a contested collection of Crimean gold artefacts that was on loan to an Amsterdam museum when the Black Sea peninsula was annexed by Russia in 2014. The decision on Tuesday means the treasures will not return to the four Crimean museums which loaned them, all of which are now under Russian control.

The ancient trove, known as the Scythian gold, is a focal point of bitter wrangling between Russian and Ukraine and has been stored by the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam since the exhibition The Crimea: Gold and Secrets of the Black Sea, which opened shortly before the annexation in March 2014. Nearly 300 gold items were shown, including a 4th-century-BC solid gold helmet that weighs over 1kg.

Judge Pauline Hofmeijer-Rutten who presided in the appeals court case ruled that the museum pieces belong to the State Museum Fund of Ukraine. This was based on a 1995 Law on Museums and Museum Affairs passed to safeguard heritage after the Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

“The public interests at stake are of great weight and this case is closely connected to the Ukrainian State,” reads a transcript posted on the court’s website. “Though the regulations encroach on private legal relationships, they do so for the sake of cultural interests that outweigh the interests of the Crimean museums.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted in response to the verdict: After the “Scythian gold”, we’ll return Crimea.”

Russian officials said they were not surprised at the decision, which they regard as politically motivated and said they would support the Crimean museums in their legal battle. Both parties have a right to appeal at the Netherlands Supreme Court.

Andrei Malgin, director of the Central Museum of Taurida in Simferopol Crimea told the official Russian RIA news agency that he was offended by the ruling and feared for the fate of the artefacts if they end up in Ukraine.

“I regard this decision as a gross disregard for the rights and interests of the Crimean people, as a spit in the soul of the people of Crimea. This is a disgusting decision, which is an example of double standards,” said Malgin. “There are no guarantees for the safety of the collection. We do not know what will happen there. We have fear for the future of the collection,” he added.

Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the State Hermitage Museum, which has a significant collection of Scythian pieces, told The Art Newspaper in July as the ruling approached that he was hoping it would be postponed since it “will only lead to all kinds of escalation”. He also expressed concerns about the consequences for international museum loans: “If it turns out that there will be a situation in which things won’t be returning [to museums that loaned them,] it means that quite quickly a significant part of the entire system of museum exchanges will collapse because such cases can happen everywhere all the time.”


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