Victory in the Dutch court: what does the final court decision on Scythian gold mean for Ukraine?

Ukraine is celebrating a victory in the case of the so-called Scythian gold, one of the first international court cases related to Russia’s aggression since the beginning of its occupation of Crimea in 2014.

The dispute, which lasted 9 years, revealed an important motive of Russia in this war — the war against Ukrainian culture and national memory.

But at the same time, the case in the Netherlands showed all the imperfections of Ukrainian legislation in regulating international activities, managing and protecting cultural property. It also demonstrated the weaknesses of international conventions on the protection of cultural property during military conflicts.

Victory in this case is not only an opportunity to return 565 valuable archaeological sites to Ukraine. The decision of the Supreme Court of the Netherlands provides legal justification for Ukraine’s claims to all the national treasures stolen by Russia during 9 years of war.

Tatiana Pushnova, culture editor of Ukrainska Pravda (news website) tells what did this victory actually give Ukraine, what was the path to it, and why will not quite Scythian and not quite gold return to Ukraine.

Evacuation beyond Ural

“It was a large-scale event and an incredibly interesting story about the Greeks, Scythians, Sarmatians, and Goths. It clearly revealed how rich, deep, and important the history of the Ukrainian south, Crimea, is for Europe. This exhibition was very popular and had long lines,” Pavlo Klimkin recalls.

In 2013, he was the ambassador to Germany and opened the exhibition “Crimea. The Golden Island in the Black Sea” at the LVR-LandesMuseum in Bonn.

The Ukrainian Institute of Archeology of the National Academy of Sciences created it in cooperation with the Institute of Ancient History of the University of Bonn, inspired by Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s drama Iphigenia in Tauris.

Four Crimean museums and the National Museum of History of Ukraine in Kyiv provided their collections for the exhibition.

And in January 2014, the golden fund of Ukrainian archaeology was packed up and transported from Bonn to Amsterdam, to the private Allard Pearson Museum, where they were looking forward to the popular exhibition.

“The fact that the Ukrainian treasures did not come to the Netherlands from Ukraine was the starting point in the case of the so-called Scythian gold,” says Svitlana Fomenko.

In May 2014, she headed the Department of International Cooperation at the Ministry of Culture. Since then, she has been involved in this case in various capacities, including as deputy and acting minister of culture.

While Ukrainian treasures were on display in the Netherlands, Russia occupied Crimea.

So, after the exhibition ended, the Amsterdam Museum faced the question of where to send the exhibits — either to Kyiv or to return them to Crimean museums.

“Undoubtedly, the Allard Pearson Museum had all the authority to transfer the exhibition to Kyiv. But we realized even then that Russia was behind the position of the Crimean museums, which demanded that the treasures be returned to the already occupied Crimea: its blackmail and threats,” says Svitlana Fomenko.

However, the Dutch museum did not want to take responsibility, wanted to avoid claims, and instead received a court case lasting 9 years.

As Martin Sanders, the legal advisor to the Ukrainian side, said during the court hearing, the Allard Pearson Museum grabbed Ukrainian treasures like a hot potato and now doesn’t know what to do with them.

See also: The history of Scythian gold from Melitopol, which Ukrainians found, then buried, and could not save from Russia

When the threat of a court case became apparent, it turned out that the Ministry of Culture was not a full-fledged subject of this process.

“The exhibition was organized by the structure of the Academy of Sciences, and the contracts for the transportation of cultural property were signed by museums on their own. We were desperate,” says Fomenko.

She says that the new leadership of the Ministry of Culture, which came after the Revolution of Dignity in March 2014 Minister Yevhen Nyshchuk and his deputy Olesia Ostrovska-Liuta — faced many problems: from the government’s lack of understanding of the interdisciplinary nature of this case to the empty state treasury. There was no money for legal advisors or travel to Amsterdam for negotiations.

The biggest problem became the legislation that regulated the preservation and international activity by Soviet norms.

“Ukrainian legislation is the legislation of a closed country that is not a subject on the international stage. It hampers our international presence, especially in the cultural sphere. We encountered this problem back then, and it still remains unresolved,” says Olesia Ostrovska-Liuta.

She headed the working group and represented the ministry in the case of the “Scythian gold” at the beginning.

“We also found out at that time that according to the internal regulations of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the evacuation of cultural property in case of danger should take place beyond the Ural,” Fomenko recalls with a smile, calling it a “curiosity.”

What did the Hague Convention not take into account?

The first thing the Ministry of Culture team did was to convince the government to allow the ministry to independently change the custodian of museum collections. In other words, it granted full management rights over the Museum Fund.

The necessary change was made to the Cabinet of Ministers resolution on the Museum Fund, which Svitlana Fomenko referred to as a copy of the Soviet resolution from 1985, which did not mention evacuation or protection of museums in case of threats.

The changes allowed the Ministry of Culture to appoint the National Museum of Ukrainian History as the chief custodian of movable cultural property from Crimea in May 2014, even before the lawsuit in the Netherlands.

By the way, these changes to the resolution on the Museum Fund could have been useful in 2022.

This provision was intended to facilitate the timely evacuation of museum collections that were under threat of Russian occupation.

Of course, if the government had remembered it in time.

Another challenge in this case was to unite several ministries around the issue of returning national treasures to Ukraine. The Ministry of Culture, at that time, couldn’t independently carry out comprehensive foreign activities and defend interests in an international court.

See also: How Ukrainian museums survive during the great war

The colleagues from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were the first to join the work. Later, under pressure from both the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Justice also became involved in the case.

Cultural valuables are not mere property, and a legal dispute should not take place in the realm of commercial law.

This position was formulated in the Ministry of Culture and was upheld by experts from the Ministry of Justice in the Dutch court.

“When the Crimean museums finally filed a lawsuit, the dispute shifted to the realm of private law rather than public law. There was a significant risk of not winning this case because the origin of the objects plays a crucial role in such disputes. Our task was to prove that these valuables originated from the territory of Ukraine and belonged to its cultural heritage, to the state Museum Fund. They were not just movable property like printers or furniture, as representatives of the Crimean museums insisted,” explains Larysa Petasyuk, who headed the legal department of the Ministry of Culture in 2014 and worked on the concept of protection together with Olesia Ostrovska-Liuta and Svitlana Fomenko.

Furthermore, Larysa Petasyuk explains that this case led to many legislative changes, including amendments to the Law on Culture and the appointment of museum directors.

There are changes that still need to be implemented, such as protocols for evacuating museum collections in the event of a threat. The relevant changes were developed back in 2020, according to Svitlana Fomenko, but were never signed by the government.

In the end, over the nine years that the process took, Ukraine acceded to Protocol II of the 1954 Hague Convention, which protects the interests of national cultural heritage internationally from an aggressor country.

Svitlana Fomenko says that the “Scythian gold” case revealed the weaknesses of this convention to international organizations. It provides good protection under peaceful conditions but is not effective in times of war.

“This case eventually became the best outcome for us because the court’s decision closes the legal question, the judicial practice at the international level regarding the cultural heritage of Crimea. It concerns not only these objects that we recovered in the Netherlands. This precedent confirms who is the subject of the decision and to whom this heritage belongs,” concludes Olesia Ostrovska-Liuta.

“If back then the Allard Pierson Museum had returned the Crimean treasures to us without this legal procedure, there would always be an opportunity for various malicious parties to cast doubt,” adds the former Deputy Minister of Culture.

According to Olesia Ostrovska-Liuta, supported by Svitlana Fomenko and Larysa Petasyuk, the victory in the “Scythian gold” case strengthens Ukraine’s position not only in the fight for the existing treasures in Crimea but also for the valuables that were stolen from there and transported to the Hermitage and Tretyakov Gallery.

This victory also has implications for illegal excavations in Crimea and what may be discovered during them.

Not “Scythian” and not “gold”

Upon arrival from the Netherlands, 2,111 objects, including over 500 museum items of cultural heritage, are eagerly awaited in the treasury of the National Museum of Ukrainian History. Its director, Natalia Panchenko, states that before this, they will have to pay almost 100,000 euros for the storage of these items in Amsterdam.

The decision regarding whether this collection will return to Ukraine in the near future or remain abroad until victory has not yet been made by the Ministry of Culture.

Natalia explains that only a few items from the late Scythian period make up the main part of the returned treasure. The majority of the objects that remain in the Netherlands are Sarmatian artifacts found during excavations at the Ust-Alma settlement in Bakhchysarai.

The age of the items ranges up to 2,000 years, and the most valuable pieces among them are not gold at all. They are Chinese lacquered wooden boxes. Natalia explains that these fragmented discoveries are unique. They were sent to a Japanese restoration master, who restored them to their original form.

These Chinese boxes, in particular, drew the greatest interest from researchers.

The most valuable part of the Scythian heritage returned to Kyiv without obstacles immediately after the exhibition at the Allard Pierson Museum concluded.

Natalia says that the treasury is proud of its collection of Scythian gold, including the famous golden pectoral.

Currently, it is undergoing evacuation. However, as soon as the security situation permits, Natalia would like to exhibit the Sarmatian treasures returned from the Netherlands in the treasury alongside the Scythian gold.

Pavlo Klimkin dreams of showcasing the comprehensive exhibition “Crimea: The Golden Island of the Black Sea” to the world. Ideally, not only in the Western regions but also in places where the rich history of the Ukrainian south is relatively unknown.

Originally posted by Tatiana Pushnova on Ukrainska Pravda. Translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website

See also: World museums recognize Ukrainian art, which was considered Russian for a long time. Art historian Oksana Semenik is fighting for this

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