Yesterday, an Amsterdam appeals court ruled against Russia. The court says a trove of historical treasures stored at a Dutch museum must be returned to Ukraine instead of Crimea, calling them “part of the cultural heritage of the Ukrainian state.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is welcoming the decision as a victory for his country. He commented on Twitter, praising “the long-awaited victory.” He says he is “grateful to the court for a fair decision.”
Russian officials and lawmakers aren’t quite so thrilled. They vow to appeal to the Dutch Supreme Court.
Yesterday’s judgment upheld a lower court’s ruling. It is the latest development in a lengthy—and bitter—legal tug-of-war.
Pursuit of earthly treasure can greatly distress people. God’s word advises “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on Earth . . . but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven. . . . For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)
The historical treasure dispute stems from Russia’s annexation of Crimea. In 2014, Russia invaded the Crimean Peninsula and took it from Ukraine. The seizure happened just a month after the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam opened the “Crimea—Gold and Secrets of the Black Sea” exhibition.
The Russian invasion sparked global outrage—and a dispute over where to return the borrowed treasures. For the past seven years, Amsterdam has stored the exhibits pending a solution to the squabble.
Nearly five years ago, an Amsterdam court ruled that the objects must be returned to Ukraine and not to the four museums in Crimea that loaned them out. At the time, the court didn’t rule on the actual ownership of the approximately 300 artifacts. Instead, the Dutch court said that the issue must be resolved by a Ukrainian court.
Among the most stunning objects in the exhibition are a solid gold Scythian helmet from the fourth century B.C. and a golden neck ornament from the second century A.D. The two weigh more than two pounds each.
“We always regain what’s ours,” Zelenskyy tweeted. “After the ‘Scythian gold,’ we’ll return Crimea.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov wouldn’t comment when asked about the ruling.
Andrei Malgin, director of the Crimean museum, expressed outrage.
“I lack words to express my indignation and anger,” Malgin says. He described the Dutch court’s verdict as a “manifestation of double standards and a show of contempt for the cultural heritage of the people of Crimea.”
Tuesday’s ruling admits that the trove originates from Crimea and therefore “may be considered part of Crimean cultural heritage.” However, it goes on to say that the artifacts “are part of the cultural heritage of the Ukrainian State” as it has existed since independence in 1991.
Further, the court says that “the cultural interest that lies in preserving the museum pieces is a public interest of the Ukrainian State that carries great weight.” The court also took into account a 1995 Ukraine law that provides protection for artifacts.
“Even if the museum pieces continue to exist and stay undamaged, the Law on Museums has the purpose of preventing museum pieces such as these from leaving the Ukrainian State’s sphere of influence. There is a present danger of this occurring,” the court says. The reference probably implies that Russia would likely take the trove should it be returned.
Alexei Levykin, the head of Moscow’s State Historical Museum, charges that the ruling “violated the basic principle of the international exchange of museum exhibits, saying the items should return to the museum where they were taken from.”
He insists that “biased court verdicts like that will effectively paralyze museum exchanges.”
(A Scythian gold helmet from the fourth century B.C. sits on display as part of an exhibit at Allard Pierson historical museum in Amsterdam. AP/Peter Dejong)