Russia, Ukraine grapple with ancient gold legal dispute
AMSTERDAM – Ukraine and Russia locked in another fierce battle over the Crimea.
But that dispute is played out in court, with the two neighbors locked in a legal battle over a valuable collection of gold artifacts from the disputed peninsula.
The collection includes ancient jewelry, precious stones, helmets and scabbards from four Crimean museums. It was loaned to a museum in the Dutch capital Amsterdam in 2014 – around the same time Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine.
Five years later, the rare archaeological finds are still caught in the middle as the Ukrainian government and Crimean museums claim ownership.
The collection highlights the rich history of Crimea as a step at the crossroads between Europe and Asia.
“Never before has Ukraine lent so many valuable archaeological exhibits,” the Allard Pierson Museum said before exhibiting the collection in Amsterdam in 2014.
The exhibition included objects from four museums in Crimea and a museum in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine.
In August 2014, the museum returned the objects it had borrowed from the Ukrainian National History Museum. However, after facing “conflicting claims” of ownership from both sides, he still has 572 disputed items.
In 2016, a Dutch court has ruled the artifacts must be returned to Ukraine as they are part of the country’s heritage, but Crimean museums have appealed the decision.
An appeal hearing took place in an Amsterdam court on Monday, where lawyers for both sides presented their final arguments.
Marielle Koppenol-Laforce, a Rotterdam-based lawyer who represents Crimean museums, told NBC News that museums were and still are the original custodians of historical artifacts at the time of the exhibition in Amsterdam.
She says the artifacts were recovered from Crimean soil – the result of many years of archaeological work.
“All they want is to show off the treasures,” Koppenol-Laforce said.
In a joint declaration Posted online on the day of the appeal hearing, the four Crimean museums said some of their best artifacts were on loan to the Amsterdam museum under the guarantee of unconditional return.
“We are convinced that we have unchallenged rights to these exhibits,” their statement said, adding that the case should be stripped of any political interference.
Maarten Sanders, one of the lawyers representing Ukraine’s interests, said annexation of Crimea has been declared illegal by the United Nations, the European Union and many other international bodies.
“Based on international law, the Netherlands and its courts should not recognize annexation,” Sanders said. “This implies that any claim to archaeological finds or cultural heritage of Crimea must be made by its recognized sovereign state, which is Ukraine.”
Sanders, who is based in Amsterdam, said Ukraine was citing a 1970 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization convention to advocate for property. The UNESCO convention deals with the illicit import, export and transfer of cultural property.
“As long as the museums of Crimea are subject to the authorities of the Russian Federation, and as long as the territory in which they are established is occupied by the Russian Federation, Ukraine cannot exercise its state control over the museums and the collections they hold, “Sanders said.” As long as this situation continues, the treasures should be kept in Kiev. “
But for now, the artifacts are in the legal custody of the Allard Pierson Museum, which will keep them until all appeals are resolved.
In an online declaration, the museum said it was staying out of the legal matter as it should not be “the party that decides to whom the disputed items are returned.”
Despite the initial ruling against her clients, Koppenol-Laforce said she remained optimistic about the outcome of the appeal, as Crimean museums have “strong arguments”.
She says a final decision is expected in mid-June, but that date is not set in stone.
Koppenol-Laforce and Sanders both agree on one thing: the case – a legal battle over historical artifacts between two nations who are also embroiled in a territorial dispute – could set a precedent.