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The Story of the Largest Theft in Modern History that Never Happened

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Photo: Gold ornament from the second century AD, an exhibit of the exhibition "Crimea - Gold and Secrets of the Black Sea" at the Allard Pearson Historical Museum in Amsterdam
Photo: Gold ornament from the second century AD, an exhibit of the exhibition "Crimea - Gold and Secrets of the Black Sea" at the Allard Pearson Historical Museum in Amsterdam

In 2013, 565 unique Scythian artifacts dating back to the 7th and 8th centuries BC set off from the Ukrainian Crimea on a voyage across central Europe. The Rhineland Regional Museum in Bonn, Germany, was waiting for the precious Ukrainian artifacts. Later, the collection went to the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam. Afterwards, the treasures of Great Scythia, as Herodotus called this territory of modern Ukraine, were to return home. But everything changed in the spring of 2014.

Russian troops without identification chevrons invaded the territory of Ukrainian Crimea, installed a puppet government on the peninsula, and announced a fake referendum. Russia annexed the territory of sovereign Ukraine and demanded to steal a collection of Scythian gold worth about 10 million euros.

The great theft

By the time the exhibition ended in Amsterdam, Russian-controlled representatives of Crimean museums began to demand the return of the collection to the territory of the Ukrainian peninsula, which has been occupied by Russia for several months.

Representatives of the Dutch museum community were brave enough not to recognize Russia's annexation of Ukrainian Crimea and to refuse the occupiers' request for the return of the unique collection.

However, formally, agreements on the transfer of valuable artifacts were signed with museums located in Crimea. This created a legal conflict that the Russian invaders decided to take advantage of. They sued the museum, demanding compliance with the contract terms.

More than two thousand unique objects were essentially "locked" in the Pierson Museum in Amsterdam. Despite their desire, the Dutch colleagues could not return the Scythian artifacts to another museum in the government-controlled territory of Ukraine since the contract was signed with specific museums in Crimea. At the same time, compliance with the terms of the contract would have meant a deliberate transfer of Ukrainian national treasures to the Russian occupiers and their inevitable theft by the Russian side.

The collection of "Scythian gold" from Ukrainian Crimea spent the next 9 years in the vaults of the Dutch museum. All this time, Russia has been trying to legitimize its right to steal artifacts, abusing the norms and spirit of European and international law.

Museum raiding

In 2014, according to the then Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister for Humanitarian Affairs Oleksandr Sych, the Russian authorities intended to take the exhibits of Crimean museums that were on display outside Ukraine to the Hermitage.

Aware of the risks and its responsibility in what is undoubtedly one of the most dramatic stories in European museum affairs in recent decades, the Dutch Pierson Museum first sought advice from lawyers at the University of Amsterdam and later extended the exhibition "Crimea - A Golden Island in the Black Sea" until November 2014.

The formal logic, not detached from the context of reality, stated that the collection could not be returned to the occupied territory. Even the contract contained a reference, albeit a protocol one, to the fact that the owner of the exhibits was the state of Ukraine, represented by the Ukrainian Museum Foundation located in Kyiv. The Ukrainian side insisted on returning the "Scythian gold" not to Russia-occupied Crimea, but to Kyiv.

In August, the Allard Pierson Museum issued an official press release stating that it could not accept demands for the return of the exhibits from either Crimean museums or Kyiv until the issue was finally resolved.

"The transfer of the objects to the interested party will almost certainly lead to claims from the other party, which creates significant risks for the Allard Pierson Museum. The museum will comply with a qualified court order or agreement between the parties," the official statement read.

Later, the museum said it had to free up the halls for other exhibitions and moved the "Scythian gold" to storage.

In January 2015, the District Administrative Court of Amsterdam began considering a lawsuit filed by four Russian-controlled Crimean museums against the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam demanding the return of the Scythian gold.

At the same time, the state of Ukraine joined the case as a third party, stating its claims for the return of artifacts of national importance.

And only a year later, in December 2016, the District Administrative Court of Amsterdam (the Netherlands) ruled that the exhibits of Crimean museums from the collection "Crimea – a golden island in the Black Sea", better known as "Scythian gold", should be returned to Ukraine.

In Spring 2017, the Russian side appealed this decision.

On March 11, 2020, the Amsterdam Court of Appeal began to consider the appeal of the museums of the Russian-annexed Crimea against the decision to return hundreds of gold, copper, and wooden artifacts of the Great Scythians to the museum collections of Ukraine.

In autumn of the same year, on October 26, 2021, the Court of Appeal issued a final decision on the appeal and confirmed the decision of the District Administrative Court of Amsterdam to transfer the collection worth millions of euros to the Ukraine-controlled territory.

However, in January 2022, Russia appealed this decision by filing a cassation appeal.

Restoring Justice 

On June 9, 2023 the Ukrainian national treasures have finally won their right to return home after 9 years of legal proceedings.

"The Allard Pierson Museum (APM) must transfer the so-called Crimean treasures to the state of Ukraine," the text of the resolution read.

The Supreme Court of the Netherlands has made a final decision to return the "Scythian gold" to Ukraine, upholding all previous decisions in favor of Kyiv and finally dismissing the cassation appeal of four museums in Russian-occupied Crimea.

"We will now hold talks with the museum and decide how and when to take these artifacts back to Ukraine. The main thing is that the decision is final and cannot be appealed," First Deputy Foreign Minister of Ukraine Emine Dzhaparova told BBC Ukraine.

"A victory in the legal battle that has been going on since 2014. Negotiations with the Pierson Museum on the mechanisms for implementing this decision are ahead. I believe that we will restore justice and open the exhibition in a free Crimea," the Ukrainian official added.

Through years of bureaucratic red tape, a seemingly formal dispute between museums and ministries of different countries has turned into an impressive battle for cultural and historical heritage, involving experts, museum workers, and the highest officials of the countries. And this had a logical explanation.

According to UNESCO, the Russian occupiers looted hundreds of Ukrainian museums in the conquered territories. Numerous artifacts, valuables, and works of art were stolen from their storage facilities and taken from Ukraine to Russia under the pretext of evacuation. In Russian museums, the valuables stolen in Ukraine are already exhibited as part of Russian history and culture.

Perhaps the justice achieved through European justice in the case of the "Scythian gold" will become a precedent that will pave the way for the return of all that Russia has stolen not only from Ukrainians but also from other sovereign nations.

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