Hundreds of Crimean Treasures Return to Ukraine After Long Legal Battle

When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the artifacts were on loan to a museum in the Netherlands

Crimea: Gold and Secrets of the Black Sea
A visitor examines artifacts from the exhibition "Crimea: Gold and Secrets of the Black Sea" at the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam in 2014. BART MAAT / AFP via Getty Images

After a years-long legal dispute, hundreds of Crimean artifacts stuck in limbo at a Dutch museum have been returned to Ukraine.

Ukraine’s culture minister, Rostyslav Karandeev, announced last week that the items had arrived safely in Kyiv.

“The return of artifacts of special historical and cultural significance is a significant and multifaceted process,” said Karandeev in a statement, per Google Translate. “It combines legal, museum, diplomatic and logistical aspects.”

The dispute began in 2014 when four Crimean museums loaned hundreds of items to the Allard Pierson Museum, an archaeological museum at the University of Amsterdam. The Dutch exhibition, “Crimea: Gold and Secrets of the Black Sea,” included ancient ceramics, jewelry, precious gems, sculptures and other treasures.

However, by the time the show ended, the legal status of the artifacts had become quite complex. In the middle of the exhibition’s run, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula—which was “President Vladimir Putin’s first major incursion into Ukrainian territory,” as the New York Times’ Nina Siegal writes.

Following the annexation, the four Crimean museums argued that they still owned the artifacts under the original loan agreements. Ukrainian officials disagreed, arguing that the artifacts belonged to Ukraine when they went on loan—and that returning them to the Crimean museums would allow Russia to seize Ukrainian cultural property.

“It is very important for us to save and protect our history, traditions and heritage,” Karandeev tells CNN’s Maria Kostenko, Victoria Butenko and Lianne Kolirin. “This is what we are fighting for [on] the battlefield. We are fighting for our identity and freedom.”

In June, after nearly a decade, the Dutch Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Ukrainian government. “Although the museum pieces originate from Crimea and can therefore also be regarded as Crimean heritage, they are part of the cultural heritage of Ukraine,” the court said, per the Associated Press.

Now, the artifacts have finally completed their journey. They reached the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in Kyiv on Sunday.

During a press conference this week, Dmitry Peskov, a spokesperson for the Kremlin, criticized the court’s decision to send the collection to Ukraine, according to reporting by Interfax, a Russian news agency, quoted in the Times. “It belongs to Crimea and must be there,” he said.

The debate over the artifacts’ ownership has been simmering for years, and tensions only increased when Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022. Since then, Russia has demolished important Ukrainian cultural sites, looted Ukrainian museums and repeatedly targeted Ukrainian cultural heritage

Now that the legal battle is over, Ukrainian officials say they hope to return the objects to Crimea one day.

“[The artifacts] cannot be returned to Crimea [at this time] for an obvious reason—it cannot be given to the occupier, the robber,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, when the court decision came down in June. “Of course, it will be in Crimea—when the Ukrainian flag will be in Crimea.”

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