MOSCOW — In one corner, the government of Ukraine. In the other, four museums on the disputed peninsula of Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014.
The prize? A trove of precious Scythian gold and ceremonial daggers, helmets and amulets made by the fearsome horseback nomads who ruled parts of Ukraine and Russia from 600 B.C. to A.D. 300 and who, according to Herodotus, drank from the (sometimes gold-lined) skulls of their vanquished enemies.
“Never before has Ukraine made so many prize archaeological exhibits available on loan: stunning artefacts made of gold, including a scabbard and a ceremonial helmet, and countless precious gems,” the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam announced in an enthusiastic news release before the February 2014 opening of its exhibit “Crimea: Gold and Secrets of the Black Sea.”
Then, the world turned upside down.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was toppled in a revolution in February 2014, and Crimea was annexed by the Russian government the next month. The political upheaval sparked a two-year legal battle to decide who would recover the Scythian gold, along with ancient artifacts from the Greeks, Romans, Goths and Huns dating to the 7th century B.C. There were other treasures like a Chinese lacquered box that made its way to Crimea along the Silk Road.
Four of the five museums that loaned the artifacts to the Allard Pierson Museum were based in Crimea, which Russia claimed as a subject on March 20, 2014. (Ukraine calls the peninsula “temporarily occupied.") When the Allard Pierson Museum delayed return of the exhibit, saying the objects were loaned by the Ukrainian government, the museums filed suit in Dutch court, fearing the loss of the most treasured items from their collections.
On Wednesday, a Dutch court ruled that the exhibit should be handed over to the Ukrainian government, as UNESCO rules dictate that items should be returned to the sovereign state, and that Crimea, an “autonomous republic” under Ukraine, did not qualify.
Ukrainian politicians did a victory lap, saying the exhibition would be displayed in the National History Museum in the capital city, Kiev. The legal battle was presented as a proxy for larger questions of sovereignty.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said that the decision “means that not only is the Scythian gold Ukrainian. Crimea is also Ukrainian. Crimea is ours, period. That follows from the decision of the court in the European country.”
“An important victory for Ukraine. The law is on our side. #CrimeaisUkraine,” Mariana Betsa, a Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, wrote on Twitter after the decision.
— Mariana Betsa (@Mariana_Betsa) December 14, 2016
Russian and Crimean officials, along with employees of the museums, voiced their anger. The museums said that they planned to appeal the decision, and Russia's Culture Ministry said the decision set an “extremely negative precedent.”
On Tuesday, Sergei Aksyonov, who heads Crimea, told journalists from the Russian state news agency TASS that he would continue fighting for the Scythian gold regardless of the court's decision.
“We will never give up our struggle for Crimea’s right to these exhibits,” he said, according to TASS. “We will go ahead with our efforts together with the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Russian Ministry of Culture. We have shaped our judicial and legal stances. It is hard for me to say how the situation is going to unfold. We will do everything within our power.”