Ukraine and Russia Are Locked in a Dispute Over Ancient Crimean Artifacts

The highly symbolic Scythian gold was on loan in the Netherlands when the peninsula was occupied. Now, the long-term future of the treasures remains uncertain

Ukraine and Russia Are Locked in a Dispute Over Ancient Crimean Artifacts
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines Magazine

In the sixth century BCE, Greek colonists crossed the Black Sea to reach the shores of the Crimean Peninsula. There they mingled with the Scythians, a nomadic people who had been driven out of central Eurasia. Crimea’s history as a crossroads of the ancient world is reflected in its rich archaeological record. The Scythians interred their kind with precious burial gifts, the designs of which were influenced by their Hellenic neighbors. Excavations unearthed delicate necklaces, gold-covered laurel wreaths and swords engraved with images of the shepherd god Pan. Perhaps most remarkable of all was a set of richly decorated makeup cases that made its way to Crimea from China and belonged to the peninsula’s most important families.

But while this Scythian gold, as the artifacts are collectively referred to, was once a reminder of the shared history uniting East with West, today it has become symbolic of the latter’s increasing separation. In early 2010, curators from Ukraine, Germany and the Netherlands began drawing up plans for a traveling exhibit titled “Crimea: The Golden Island in the Black Sea.” After much paperwork, over 500 artifacts — including helmets, daggers and even one of the Chinese cases — were taken from four Crimean institutions and shipped to the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam. The exhibit opened in February 2014 to much fanfare. Celebrations, however, did not last, as later that month Russia occupied Crimea.

When the exhibit ended in September that year, Allard Pierson found itself in a difficult and in many respects unprecedented position. Before receiving the Scythian gold, it had signed a loan agreement promising to return the artifacts to their owner. But who owned them? As early as March, when Vladimir Putin signed a treaty incorporating the peninsula into the Russian Federation, the Crimean museums had insisted that Allard Pierson stick with them: the original lenders. Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture, rejecting the annexation, also laid claim to the artifacts, declaring that these “national treasures” should be sent to Kyiv instead. Allard Pierson, not wanting to violate the integrity of their loan agreement, locked the helmets and daggers in a storage facility until their possession had been proven in court. Before Christmastime, the three parties were gearing up for a legal battle that would last long enough to see Russia’s incursion turn into a full-blown war.

Although the Kremlin was not directly involved in this case, its shadow loomed large over the courtroom. According to Matthew Pauly, a historian of Ukraine who teaches Eastern European history at Michigan State University, “Ukraine and Russia have been fighting for a long time over who can claim the Scythian gold as part of their cultural inheritance.” In 1776, Catherine the Great used such a claim to make the Crimean Khanate part of the Russian Empire. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, treated the artifacts as the common heritage of a socialist coalition in which the Ukrainians were the junior partners. To this day, notes Pauly, there remain Russian nationalist groups that refer to themselves as Scythians and, fueled by imperialist literature from the 19th and early 20th centuries, “romanticize the ancient people as representatives of a distinctive vision of Russian identity that’s neither European nor Asian but something in between.”

Whoever owns Scythian gold, owns Ukraine — this is what the Russians believe, and it explains why their troops will go to such extreme lengths to acquire it. When Leila Ibrahimova, director of the Museum of Local History in Melitopol, hid the institution’s oldest artifacts in cardboard boxes, it did not take long for soldiers to come knocking at her door. Although they put a black hood over her head and questioned her for hours, she never gave up their location. Eventually, though, someone else did, and now the items — 198 in total — have disappeared without a trace.

Even before the start of the war, Ukraine feared that if Allard Pierson were to return its loans to Crimea they would fall, if not directly into Russian hands, at least under their direct control. Such fears were not unfounded. Like every other museum in the region, the four lenders — the Tavrida Central Museum in Simferopol, the Kerch Historical and Cultural Preserve in Kerch, the Bakhchisaray History and Cultural State Preserve in Bakhchisaray and the National Preserve of Tauric Chersonesos in Sevastopol — had been re-registered under the Russian Museum Fund. Their buildings now wave Russian flags, and their websites use the domain .ru instead of .ua.

The Crimean museums replied that any threat of Russian interference — real or imagined — was irrelevant to the courtroom. “From the beginning,” Martha Visser, one of the Dutch lawyers representing Ukraine, told New Lines, “they said we needed to abstract the case from the political reality and only look at it judicially. Judges should, of course, be neutral, but that doesn’t mean they cannot consider what is going on out there.”

Visser’s team based much of its argument on the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. By drawing on this convention, the lawyers could prevent the judges from having to rule on Ukraine’s ownership of the Scythian gold — a daunting task, legally speaking — focusing instead on a more specific and principled point: its right to receive the artifacts in transfer. “Cultural heritage need not be owned by the state to claim it back from another country,” Visser explains, “even though, in this case, it is. Technically, Rembrandt’s ‘Night Watch’ is owned by the municipality of the city of Amsterdam, not the state [of the] Netherlands. However, if the painting is loaned and is lost or stolen, then the state can claim it back based on the convention.”

The argument of the Crimean museums — represented by the same firm that, prior to the war, handled Dutch cases for the Russian Federation — was based first on the provisions of the loan agreement and second on the history of the Scythian gold itself. As the places that discovered, preserved and headed the “operational management” of the artifacts, the museums saw themselves as their “genuine home.” Responding to the stipulations of the UNESCO Convention, they reasoned that the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (ARC), by virtue of its autonomy, should take precedence over Kyiv in receiving the gold. Also invoked was the 1996 version of the Ukrainian Constitution, which stated that the ARC has the right to independently administer its historical objects — a provision still in place today.

Where the Ukrainian argument was free from contradiction, the Crimean museums had to walk a rhetorical tightrope. “To claim the treasures,” said Visser, “they had to present themselves as Ukrainian entities. At the same time, they were waving Russian flags and selling Russian tickets. They were saying one thing in court and doing something completely different over on the peninsula.”

For a long time, it seemed as though the case would never come to a conclusion. In 2016, the Dutch lower courts ruled that the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea constituted the “material change in circumstances” Ukrainian law requires to forfeit the conditions of Allard Pierson’s agreement. It also ruled that the aim of the UNESCO Convention — to prevent the illicit trafficking of cultural property — provided the legal basis for the Scythian gold to be sent to Kyiv instead of the original lenders. The lenders, as expected, renounced both decisions, leading to a slight compromise when, in 2021, the appeals court ruled that the artifacts would be held in central Ukraine “until the situation in Crimea had stabilized.” Two years and an appeal later, the Dutch Supreme Court elected to maintain the previous verdicts, finally bringing this legal drama to a close.

The case of Allard Pierson and the Scythian gold raises significant questions about the war in Ukraine, including the agency Western powers possess in the face of Russian aggression. Historically, the Netherlands has had a close relationship with Moscow. Tsar Peter the Great visited Amsterdam in 1697 as part of a grand tour of Europe, and was so impressed with the city that he used it as a blueprint for his own St. Petersburg, built six years later. Anna Pavlovna, daughter of Tsar Paul I, was married in 1816 to King William II, imbuing the Dutch royal family with Romanov blood. Ties between the Netherlands and the Russian Federation, briefly restored after a century of Soviet rule, turned sour in 2014. Not because of the annexation of Crimea — the Dutch government, like its European counterparts, failed to see the urgency of the event — but because, that same year, a passenger flight traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, was shot down by Russian-backed separatists while crossing eastern Ukraine. Among the 298 occupants of the plane, 193 were Dutch nationals.

While neighboring countries would continue to ignore the elephant in the room until it was no longer possible, the Netherlands had been awoken — in Pauly’s words — to “the real danger of Russian military aggression.” At the same time, the small country learned just how little it could do to stop this danger, much less avenge its victims. Russia, true to its playbook, refused to cooperate with and even sabotaged criminal investigations, and while The Hague has given life sentences to two Russians officers, the culprits are as likely to be extradited as Putin is to abdicate.

When observed in this broader context, one sees clearly how the more hopeful outcome of the Scythian gold case reflects the deterioration of Dutch-Russian relations. Especially noteworthy was the dismissal of one of the judges, who — upon further investigation — was revealed to have defended the Kremlin in the infamous Yukos case, in which investors sought compensation from the Russian state for bankrupting the conglomerate after arresting its CEO, the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Although this judge had probably been put on the case because of his knowledge of international law, Visser’s team worried that his professional track record and friendly behavior toward the Crimean lawyers would render the judgment less than impartial, and they filed not one but two requests to remove him. Visser said it’s rare to file two requests and even rarer for the second to end in success. “These things only happen in criminal cases, not civil ones, and even then they’re incredible,” she said. Although the Dutch court prides itself on its neutrality, Visser wonders whether, at times, given the circumstances, it tried too hard to refrain from making an explicit statement on the occupation of Crimea. It is difficult to imagine such an unlikely turn of events taking place in a world where Russia and the Netherlands still enjoyed a strong diplomatic relationship.

Outside the courtroom, the Scythian gold case also serves as a reminder of the costs, consequences, and ultimately the limitations of preserving cultural heritage in times of conflict. Unsurprisingly, Russian nationalists and Ukrainian separatists were not happy with the Dutch Supreme Court’s ultimatum, and are using it as a means to further mobilize their followers against Russia’s opponents. “It was nothing but ordinary plunder of a unique and priceless collection,” Vladimir Konstantinov, chairman of the State Council of the Republic of Crimea, told the Russian news agency TASS. “We will certainly add this to our list of financial claims to Ukraine and the West, which, in fact, is the ideologist and the true beneficiary of all crimes committed by the Kiev government.”

The unjustified outrage of people such as Konstantinov should be weighed against the genuine disappointment of Crimean archaeologists and museum workers, who spent large portions of their careers studying artifacts that now lie beyond their reach. “They are like our children,” one of them shared under condition of anonymity, as speaking too freely could land them in a Russian jail. They had previously found a voice via Oeke Hoogendijk, a Dutch filmmaker whose 2021 documentary “The Treasures of Crimea” presents the case from their perspective.

“I think it is a tragedy and an injustice that the Crimean museums lost their treasures as a result of the war,” she told New Lines in an email. “Now there is a hole in their collections. Imagine we let someone borrow the ‘Night Watch’ and not get it back due to various political tribulations.”

And yet, those political tribulations are no triviality. In an ideal world, the Scythian gold would naturally have been returned to the institutions it came from. Yet in the real world, the fact remains that there would then be a risk of its permanent separation not only from greater Ukraine but also — sooner or later— from Crimea as well. As the war progressed and Russia’s intentions became clearer, even the museum workers came to realize — albeit reluctantly — that the artifacts are better off safe in Kyiv than on the occupied peninsula: “Our lives before the war will never come back,” Hoogendijk wrote, “and we should not expect something resembling the past to return. Compared to people dying, it is nothing.”

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