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Disputed Crimean treasures must go back to Ukraine, top Dutch court rules

Hundreds of pieces on loan to a museum in Amsterdam in 2014 have been sitting in storage while the dispute made its way through the courts.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — The Netherlands’ highest court ruled on Friday that ancient pieces loaned from museums in Crimea before Russia’s annexation of the peninsula must be returned to Ukraine as they are part of the country’s cultural heritage. 

The decision from the Hoge Raad, the Dutch Supreme Court, brings to an end a nearly 10-year legal battle over priceless historical artifacts, including a 2,500-year-old solid gold Scythian helmet, between the museums. 

“The museum exhibits must be handed over to the state of Ukraine,” The Hague-based court wrote in a ruling only available in Dutch. 

The objects were part of the “The Crimea — Gold and Secrets of the Black Sea” exhibition that had traveled through Europe and were on display at the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam when Russia took over the Black Sea peninsula in 2014. 

The museum became embroiled in a legal battle after both Moscow and Kyiv demanded the pieces back. 

Precious jewels, gold coins, Greek pottery and a Chinese lacquered box showcase the history of the region as an important stop along the Silk Road and its history of colonization. The museum, which is part of the University of Amsterdam, first extended the exhibition and then attempted mediation with the museums and Ukrainian officials. 

In 2016, a court in Amsterdam ruled the trove should be sent back to Ukraine where a Ukrainian court could determine ownership. Relying on the 1970 UNESCO convention, which regulates the trade of cultural items, the Amsterdam District Court concluded the pieces should go back to the sovereign government which loaned them. 

The Crimean museums appealed, and in 2021 a higher court again sided with Ukraine and found the objects were part of its cultural heritage. At the time, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called the decision a victory, saying, “After the ‘Scythian gold,’ we’ll return Crimea.” The museums appealed again. 

The Supreme Court has now had the final word. It noted that the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, where the museums are located, is not recognized by the Netherlands, the European Union or the United Nations. Crimea declared itself independent after Russian military forces occupied airports and government buildings in the region, ultimately asking to join Russia.

The dispute has raised questions about art ownership and what to do with precious objects in times of conflict. A Dutch filmmaker released a documentary about the battle called "The Treasures of Crimea" last year. 

The ruling does not specify when the objects must be returned and there is no indication from the Ukrainian authorities as to when they would be able to take them back. 

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Categories / Appeals, Arts, Government, International

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