Dutch court begins hearing into ownership of Crimean treasures

Items were loaned to Amsterdam museum prior to Russia’s annexation of Crimea

Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and   singer Larisa Dolina sing the Russian national anthem at a concert in Moscow in March, 2015, to mark the first anniversary of the annexation of Crimea. Photograph: Maxim Shipenkov/EPA

Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and singer Larisa Dolina sing the Russian national anthem at a concert in Moscow in March, 2015, to mark the first anniversary of the annexation of Crimea. Photograph: Maxim Shipenkov/EPA

 

A tug-of-war has begun in a Dutch court over who owns a hoard of 565 irreplaceable treasures from Crimea that were on loan to an Amsterdam museum when the Crimean peninsula was annexed from Ukraine by Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, two years ago.

The contents of the exhibition, Crimea: Gold and Secrets from the Black Sea, were found in tombs in Crimea between the seventh century BC and the seventh century AD, and illustrate the influence of various ancient cultures during that period on the region bordering the Black Sea.

The items now being fought over by four museums in Crimea and by the Ukrainian authorities in Kiev include a collection of Scythian gold jewellery, the most spectacular of which are a spiralling torque or neck ring from the second century and a pectoral or necklace from the fourth century BC.

The archaeological finds – which also include Greek and Roman artefacts, a gold ceremonial helmet, armour and swords, and a selection of precious gems – went on display at the Allard Pierson Museum at the University of Amsterdam in February 2014. The exhibition closed on the following August 31st.

A month after the exhibition opened, Russia invaded Crimea, cutting it off from the rest of Ukraine in an act of aggression that was condemned as illegal by the United Nations and the European Union. The Netherlands refuses to recognise the annexation.

The Ukrainian culture ministry subsequently claimed the exhibits as state property, while the four museums, now in Russian hands, asked for the pieces to be returned to them as the institutions that had loaned them in the first place. The Allard Pierson refused until legal ownership was established.

As a result of that refusal, the Crimean museums launched legal proceedings against the Amsterdam museum last November – following which the Ukrainian and Dutch governments both petitioned to join the case as interested parties.

Ukraine was allowed to become part of the proceedings but the Netherlands was turned down because, the judges decided, it “failed to show sufficient cause as to why the outcome would have substantive adverse effect on its affairs”.

Moscow has laid no legal claim to the objects, although it now regards Crimea as part of the Russian Federation.

Wednesday’s hearing in Amsterdam dealt largely with procedural matters. Judges set a date of December 14th for their ruling, though they stressed that that date was preliminary and could change as the case proceeds.

Dr Wim Hupperetz, director of the Allard Pierson Museum, described the ownership row as “a nightmare” for all concerned.

“We organised the exhibition, we want to maintain relationships with all the museums that lent us these objects, and so this is certainly not what we want,” he said. “We also understand the frustration from the other side – because we also lend beautiful and valuable objects.”