Court orders Crimean Treasures returned to Ukrainian State

Posted on: October 28, 2021 by

The Amsterdam Court of Appeal delivered its final decision this week in the much-debated case about the golden treasures that have been in the possession of the Allard Pierson Museum (left) in the Netherlands since 2014. Both the lending Crimean Museums and the Ukrainian State have been demanding the return of the objects following the Republic of Crimea’s secession from the Ukraine later that year. Both the first and second instance judgments have favoured the State of Ukraine. However the grounds for each were different.

In its final judgment, the Court of Appeal upheld its interim decision that the 1970 UNESCO Convention and consequently the Dutch Heritage Act were not applicable in this case as the artefacts involved had been validly exported into the Netherlands in the first instance. For my commentary on that decision, see here.

The Court of Appeal did not seek to establish the true ownership of the objects, since this was not deemed necessary to answer the question asked of it, namely to whom the Crimean treasures should be returned.

The Court of Appeal considered instead Ukraine’s Law of Museums and Museum Affairs, a statute adopted in 1995 for Ukraine to protect its cultural heritage, as the pertinent legal instrument. The cultural interest in furthering the conservation of its museum assets is considered to be of great importance to the State and so is capable of overruling private legal arrangements.

The Court of Appeal based its decision on Order no. 292, passed by Ukraine pursuant to the Law of Museums and Museum Affairs. The Order directs the transportation of the pieces to the National Museum of History of Ukraine in Kiev, pending stabilization of the situation in Crimea. The Dutch Court agreed with the Ukraine’s position that this regulation was intended to be a temporary measure and was not meant to be an act of expropriation. The Court of Appeal found the date of issuance of the Order, May 13th 2014 – several months after the separation of Crimea and indeed after the objects had already left Ukrainian territory – irrelevant for the validity thereof. A clarification of what exactly was meant by the Order’s reference to ‘pending stabilization of the situation in Crimea’ was not provided.

The decision is not provisionally enforceable and it is expected that the Crimean Museums will appeal the judgment to the Dutch Supreme Court. As a result, the Allard Pierson Museum may have to hold onto the Crimean Treasures just a little while longer.

On a side note: the procedural aspects of this case have been just as versatile as the subject matter itself. After the passing of the interim judgment the independence of one of the Court of Appeal judges was challenged, twice. The second request was granted, and a new judge was assigned to the case. The Court of Appeal thereupon reviewed the matter in its entirety.