When culture turns politics: The fight over the Crimean gold

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by Björn Schöpe
translated by Teresa Teklic

September 4, 2014 – Once again it seems like a precious cultural treasure is becoming a plaything of international politics. This time, however, the case is unusually complicated, perhaps even unique, at least in legal terms.

Last year, the Landesmuseum Bonn presented a large exhibition featuring the famous Crimean gold. The skilfully forged gold objects of the Scythians – helmets, amulets, jewellery – and countless other finds from the Crimean Peninsula were thus made available for a wide Western audience for the very first time. The exhibition then moved to the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam.

Originally scheduled to close in May, the exhibition was extended until the end of August. At that point, the political upheaval on the Crimean Peninsula raised the question of the future whereabouts of the Crimean gold. Quick reminder: since 1992, the Crimean Peninsula at the Black Sea belonged to the Ukraine as autonomous republic. Since a referendum on independence in the spring of 2014, Russia considers Crimea as part of its own country, an understanding not shared by any other nations so far.
Crimean museums demand that the objects be returned to them. The large majority of exhibition pieces had come straight from Crimea, some of them only just been excavated, and very few previously been in possession of a museum in Kiev. Moscow supports this view. Kiev, on the other hand, emphasises that Crimea still belongs to the Ukraine and demands that the Dutch send the gold treasures to Kiev, since their place of origin is contested military ground.

Valentina Mordvintseva, curator of the exhibition, tells Germany’s international broadcaster “Deutsche Welle” that, even in the marketplace, saleswomen ask her what will now happen to “their” gold treasures. Being a link to the glorious past the artefacts enjoy huge popularity in the region. If they ended up in Kiev, Mordvintseva says, they would “look like the spoils of war – won in the war against Russia.”

Of course there was a lease contract between the lender and the Western museums. The exact contents of the contract are unknown. Recognition of the Crimean museums themselves as lenders may improve chances to reclaim the gold. But if the items were to be considered governmental loans, Kiev may win the case. However, lawyers still haven’t decided in which court the case will be tried.
As long as judicial experts are debating this issue, the Allard Pierson Museum has determined to store the exhibition items at a secret place and wait for a decision. Otherwise the party who loses the case may file a damage suit against the Dutch museum. And the museum can’t afford to take that financial risk.

The Wall Street Journal discusses the complicated situation in this article.

“Deutsche Welle” spoke with curator Valentina Mordvintseva (in German).

And here’s the website of the Allard Pierson Museum.