Ancient Crimean gold caught in legal limbo

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Dutch museum faces dilemma whether to return artefacts to Ukraine or Russia

By Sophia Kishkovsky. Web only
Published online: 27 March 2014

Objects on view in the exhibition “The Crimea—Gold and Secrets of the Black Sea”

Scythian gold and other rare artefacts from Crimea on loan to an Amsterdam museum are in legal limbo after Russia’s annexation of the peninsula. The archaeological museum of the University of Amsterdam has asked the Dutch ministry of foreign affairs for advice and is consulting lawyers about the artefacts, which were due to return to Ukraine when a touring exhibition now at the Allard Pierson Museum closes.

A spokesman for the university tells The Art Newspaper: “The Allard Pierson Museum considers it extremely important to exercise care in this situation.” The objects will remain in the Netherlands for at least the duration of the exhibition, he says, which had been extended from May to August. “Given the complexity of the issue, the manner in which the objects will be returned is currently being investigated by the legal advisers of the university,” he says.

The artefacts came to the Netherlands based on loan agreements that were concluded prior to the political upheaval in Ukraine and the recent change of power in Crimea. The show opened in Amsterdam in February, having travelled from Bonn in Germany.

Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the State Hermitage Museum, told journalists in St Petersburg on Tuesday that it is unclear what will happen to the works on display in the exhibition “The Crimea—Gold and Secrets of the Black Sea”. The show features ancient jewellery and armour on loan from five Ukrainian museums, including four in the Crimean peninsula. A controversial referendum in Crimea on 16 March saw a 96% vote in favour of joining the Russian Federation.

“The objects from the Kerch museum, which is in Crimea, have been exhibited in Holland and are supposed to return,” Piotrovsky told local media in St Petersburg. “A difficult problem arises. On the one hand, legally, everything is against the [Kerch] museum. On the other hand, these objects belong to the museum. We will work out an agreement on how the museum will get them back,” Piotrovsky said.

The Hermitage was not involved in the exhibition. The St Petersburg museum’s collection includes Scythian gold, however, and it has a branch in Amsterdam.

Valentina Mordvintseva, an archaeologist from the Crimean branch of the Institute of Archaeology of the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences, who helped organise the show, says it explores “the interaction and diversity of cultures on the Crimean peninsula in the period from the seventh century BC to the seventh century AD”. Highlights include a group of first century AD Chinese lacquer boxes found at a Crimean burial site along with bronze Roman vessels: “This is the westernmost find of Chinese lacquer in the world, which indicates the long-distance contact of various ancient peoples; for all practical purposes, it shows the ties between two great empires—China and Rome.”

Mordvtinseva told Russia’s NTV news channel that breaking up Crimea’s collections would be a fatal move. “This is murder, both for the objects and for the museum,” she said.

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