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Crimea gold dispute reaches next level

Anastassia Boutsko
February 4, 2022

An eight-year legal tug-of-war between Kyiv and Moscow over a historic collection of Crimean artifacts has been referred to the highest court in the Netherlands.

Crimean gold: elaborate golden object
An elaborate gold ornament from the 2013/2014 exhibition 'Crimea: Gold and Secrets of the Black Sea'Image: Peter Dejong/AP/dpa/picture alliance

The border between Russia and Ukraine runs across fields, through forests and the waters of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. Since the end of January, it also runs across the desks of the judges at the Supreme Court of the Netherlands in The Hague, who are looking into the legal tug-of-war being fought over a collection of Crimean gold for the past eight years.

This somewhat misleading name has been used by the media to describe a collection of valuable archaeological artifacts — just shy of a quarter of the 432 objects are actually made of gold — presented as part of a 2013/2104 exhibition titled "Crimea: Gold and Secrets of the Black Sea," first shown in Bonn, Germany, and then at the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Three earthenware animal-like objects
These objects are also part of the contested collectionsImage: Valentina Mordvintseva

The exhibition was meant to show how the cultures of ancient civilizations on the Crimean Peninsula meshed — the Greeks on the one hand and the nomadic steppe peoples on the other.

The artifacts included ancient Greek vessels and sculptures, filigree brooches and jewels, but also Scythian weapons, funeral masks and helmets as well as valuable Chinese lacquer boxes from the Han Dynasty. The peninsula was a melting pot of oriental and occidental cultures.

Historic treasures held hostage by politics

The public enjoyed the unique project and more than 50,000 visitors flocked to the show. At that same time, however, the world also witnessed the fall of the pro-Russian government in Ukraine in February 2014, and the subsequent annexation of the Crimean peninsula by Russia.

When the exhibition ended, the Allard Pierson Museum faced a dilemma — five museums had loaned objects for the show. The Museum of National History in Kyiv had loaned 19 Scythian gold artifacts, which were easy enough to return.

Golden metal helmet
This Skythian helmet was returned to the Museum of National History in the Ukrainian capital, KyivImage: Peter Dejong/AP/picture alliance

But the remaining 413 objects came from Crimea's four most important museums — in Bakhchisaray (215), Kerch (39), Khersones (27) and Simferopol (132) — institutions now in a region annexed by the Russian Federation and called the Republic of Crimea.

Legal dispute

A legal marathon unfolded over the following eight years. The four Crimean museums took legal action to force the Dutch museum to return the trove of artifacts but de facto, it was a legal battle that pitted Ukraine against Russia.

In the first instance, the ancient treasures were awarded to Ukraine. In the second instance, the Crimean museums were granted a victory, but the opposing side doubted the neutrality of the Dutch judge Duco Oranje, who at the time worked as a lawyer for a major Russian company, and had him removed from the trial.

In October 2021, a verdict was handed down in Ukraine's favor, causing a small storm of national enthusiasm, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy tweeting after the ruling, "We always take back what is ours. First we'll get the Scythian gold and then Crimea."

Valentina Mordvintseva, woman wearing a coat stands outdoors
Valentina Mordvintseva says the objects 'belong where they were found'Image: Privat

Russian President Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, spoke of "clear theft" and assured the head of the Republic of Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, of his support. At the end of January, the Russian side filed an appeal. It may be months or even years before the highest national court in the Netherlands reaches a decision, which will certainly not be easy.

'There is no good solution'

Valentina Mordvintseva, an expert at the Crimean Archaeological Institute who curated the exhibition ten years ago, is eagerly awaiting a final decision. She is, she says, "somehow guilty of the whole mess."

Back in the late 1990s, she recalls that she and her then-husband, archaeologist Yuri Zaycev, discovered wooden remains in the tombs of Ust-Alma near Bakhchisaray, a necropolis of the Scythian elite from the second century BC. The scientists identified what at first looked like a pile of organic waste as ancient Chinese boxes — the first time lacquered art objects were discovered that far west, which was sensational.

Battered-looking painted lacquered box
Finding this lacquered Chinese box triggered the idea for the 2013/2014 exhibitionImage: Peter Dejong/AP/picture alliance

With no funds for the restoration and storage of the precious finds, Mordvintseva stashed the antique wooden remains in her refrigerator and started an international fundraising campaign. A Japanese foundation agreed to finance the restoration, German colleagues helped organize an exhibition in Bonn and a second show was scheduled in Amsterdam to split the costs. "We had to finance the air-conditioned showcases for the storage of the cases with profits the exhibition would have brought in,," Mordvintseva told DW.

Her main interest, says Mordvintseva, was presenting the Chinese boxes to international experts — but who would be interested in decaying wood outside a small group of specialists? In order to get more artifacts  — like objects made of gold — and attract larger audiences for the exhibition, Mordvintseva approached the five museum directors. Her research area on the Crimean peninsula of course, had been annexed, too.

Crimean gold on tour?

"There is no good solution to this story," said Mordvintseva, who now teaches ancient history at the Moscow Higher School of Economics (HSE). Returning the objects to Russia would be "perceived by the people of Ukraine as a betrayal of their national interests," she argued, adding she understands that sentiment as part of her family lives in Ukraine.

A man speaking to a crowd of reporters with microphones
Rob Meijer, the Crimean museums' lawyer, speaking to reporters after the October 2021 rulingImage: Peter Dejong/AP/dpa/picture alliance

In an ideal world, however, according to the scientist, the objects "belong where they were found" — in Crimea. In a guest article for the independent paper Novaja Gazeta she described further disadvantages of a return to Kyiv: The objects would be "torn from their context," she wrote, because all other objects found as well as the documentation of the excavations are stored in the Crimean museums, which also have the greatest research competence.

"Perhaps an open-ended traveling exhibition would be a solution," said the archaeologist — a show that would tour the world until the dispute between Russia and Ukraine is settled. That, Mordvintseva admits, would likely take a while. But no one has asked her opinion in years, neither in Russia nor in Ukraine, or the Netherlands.

This article was originally written in German