Ukraine, Not Russia, Has Control Over a Major Trove of Ancient Crimean Gold, a Court Has Ruled

Ownership of the gold treasures has been the subject of a bitter court battle since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

A Scythian gold helmet (L) from the 4th century BC is among the disputed artifacts. Courtesy of the Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam.

A Dutch appeals court has ruled that Ukraine, not Russia, has legal control over a famous cache of gold artifacts from Crimea.

The ancient treasures, often collectively referred to as the “Scythian gold”, were on loan to the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam in 2014 when Russia moved to annex the Black Sea peninsula. They have remained in the Netherlands since then, while Russia and Ukraine have battled over ownership of the objects in court—a dispute that has come to symbolize the precarious state of Crimea today. 

In a tweet, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called the ruling a “long-awaited victory.”

“We always regain what’s ours,” he wrote. “After the ‘Scythian gold,’ we’ll return Crimea.”

Among the nearly 300 gold pieces in the collection are amulets and ceremonial daggers, a necklace dating to the second century A.D., and a helmet from the fourth century B.C. The objects were lent by four Crimean institutions ​​for a travelling exhibition—the largest presentation of such ancient artifacts outside of the peninsula at the time. The show debuted in 2013 at the Rhineland Regional Museum in Bonn, Germany before moving to the Netherlands.

But since the Crimean museums are now under Russian control, they no longer have a legal claim to the artifacts, Dutch judge Pauline Hofmeijer-Rutten decided this week, upholding a district court’s 2016 ruling that the objects ​​be returned to the Ukrainian government. 

“Although the museum pieces originate from Crimea… they are part of the cultural heritage of the Ukrainian State as it has existed as an independent state since 1991,” the judge said, according to a transcript of the ruling on the court’s website. The decision was made in accordance with Ukraine’s Law on Museums and Museum Affairs, a statute passed in 1995—after the country declared independence from the Soviet Union—which safeguards important cultural artifacts from leaving the country. 

“The public interests at stake are of great weight and this case is closely connected to the Ukrainian State,” the judge added. “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.”

Mikhail Shvydkoi, a Russian official involved in international cultural cooperation, told the Guardian that the museums would bring their appeal against the decision to the Netherlands’ highest court, calling the Scythian gold case “a kind of force majeure.”

And in a statement shared on the Russian social-media site VKontakte, Sergey Aksyonov, the Russian-appointed head of the contested Republic of Crimea, called the ruling an “outrageous, unfair and illegal decision, albeit expected given the bias of European courts and their hostility toward Russia and Crimea,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

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