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15.11.2023 18:02

The war in Ukraine and the evidence of the illegal traffic of cultural heritage objects

Прокурор Офісу Генерального прокурора

Ця доповідь була зроблена 09.11.2023 на міжнародному симпозіумі у межах проєкту ANCHISE (університет м. Пуатьє, Франція)

Ukraine is currently experiencing unprecedented military aggression, the largest war in Europe since World War II. And the situation with illegal trafficking of cultural assets is largely a consequence of this war. But war is not the only reason.

Generally, the problem of illegal trafficking of cultural assets from Ukraine is caused by many factors. I'd like to present some examples that can illustrate the situation we have now.

But first, let's have a short glimpse into history.

Ukrainian lands joined Russia, then called Muscovy, in 1654 as an autonomous region. Autonomy rights were quickly destroyed by the central authorities in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Russian rulers perceived Ukraine as an integral part of the Russian Empire, and later the Soviet Union. This went on for more than 300 years. Therefore, it’s not surprising, for example, that a significant part of the collection of antique jewelry in the Hermitage is from Ukraine.

Russia's appropriation of Ukraine's cultural assets continued during the Soviet times. For example, the famous mosaic “Dmitry of Thessalonica”, made in the 12th century for the St. Michael’s Monastery in Kiev, was taken to Moscow for an exhibition in the 1930s and appropriated by the Tretyakov Gallery.

It is obvious that Russia is not going to return these items to Ukraine.

However, it would seem that since the independence of Ukraine the problem has been solved, and Ukraine's cultural heritage is the property of Ukraine.

Well, it turned out differently. In 2014, after the annexation of Crimea, Donetsk and Lugansk, a significant part of the cultural property fell into the hands of the Russians.

It is difficult to say how many cultural assets from the occupied regions of Ukraine were exported to Russia from 2014 to 2022. Museum workers from the occupied cities that moved to the Ukrainian state controlled territory say that these are numerous.

But Russia’s actions on Ukraine’s territories captured after February 24th, 2022 are outrages and undisguised robbery.

I cannot give any statistics now – the information is updated every day. We understand that the true scale of these crimes will be revealed after the war.

But I can give you a few examples.

The most striking cases are the robbery of museums in Kherson, Melitopol, and Mariupol.

Before the occupation, the collection of the Kherson Local History Museum consisted of more than 170 thousand exhibits. The Russians took away about 85% of those, including valuable books, antique ceramics, ancient sculptures and more.

The Kherson Art Museum housed icons from the 14th century, original works by Aivazovsky and Vrubel, and a large collection of works by Ukrainian artists. Most of these works were stolen by the Russians. Some of them later appeared in the Simferopol Museum. The whereabouts of the other paintings are still unknown.

It is known that during the occupation, a collection of two thousand-year-old gold jewelry stored at Melitopol Local History Museum, including the famous and unique diadem of the Hun leader, as well as many other exhibits, disappeared.

No less damage was caused to museums in Mariupol, Nova Kakhovka and other cities captured by Russian troops.

To date, criminal proceedings have been opened on all these facts and law enforcement agencies are conducting investigations.

The prospects for the return of stolen cultural property to Ukraine are quite complex. Many artifacts exported to Russia are now inaccessible to us. On the other hand, there are cases of further export of cultural property to third countries, and in this case we have a chance to return them. For instance, a few months ago, 14 archaeological artifacts that were stolen from the museums on the occupied territories were returned to Ukraine. The criminals tried to bring these items to the United States, but they were identified by American customs officials. The Ukrainian authorities proved that these items are from Ukrainian museums. As a result, they were returned to Ukraine.

However, the problem is not only related to robbery by Russian invaders.

During the years of Ukrainian independence, many Ukrainian politicians and businessmen acquired extensive collections of archaeological items, paintings, numismatics, and jewelry.

And with the beginning of the war, some unusual things began to happen to these collections.

For example, 15 years ago the Ukrainian society learned about a collection of gold jewelry that belonged to one of the Ukrainian banks. The collection was presented to the public as genuine ancient artifacts.

Recently, this collection was detained by the police in Spain. Today, Ukrainian scientists are involved in the attribution and evaluation of these items. Some of them are modern replicas. But the other part is the originals. However, the complete collection was not found, so we assume that some of the items were sold earlier. It is also unclear how the collection was transported across the border.

Here’s another case. One of the Ukrainian businessmen acquired a collection of items that once belonged to the last Chinese emperor Pu-Yi. These items came to Ukraine in the Soviet times. They are well known and have been exhibited across Ukrainian museums.

This spring this collection was detained by Ukrainian customs officers. According to the documents, the owner tried to take it to the exhibition abroad. It is not prohibited. But the alarming thing is that the export was accompanied by a document issued by one of the leading Ukrainian museums stating that this collection does not represent cultural value, which means it can be exported using a simplified procedure.

The situation is extraordinary, but, as it turned out, some of our experts are deeply convinced that all these items of the 17th and 18th centuries are not cultural assets.

Anyway, if such items are detained by Ukrainian customs officials during an attempt to export them illegally, they are subsequently confiscated.

It is much more difficult if these items are detained not in Ukraine, but abroad.

In this case, in order to return the valuables to Ukraine, we must prove that they originate from Ukraine.

As for the Bank collection, our experts are now gathering evidence that it indeed originates from Ukraine.

Unfortunately, we have negative precedents as well.

For example, in 2016, one man found several items of Roman silverware. He sold part of them, and they were illegally exported abroad and later detained in Germany. The Prosecutor General's Office sent evidence that these items belong to Ukraine. But, unfortunately, neither the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture nor the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spoke on behalf of Ukraine demanding the return of these items. Both ministries cited a lack of competence. Of course, this is unacceptable negligence of the governmental institutions. As a result, the court in Munich found the new owner not guilty.

Earlier, a court in Ukraine found the man who found the items guilty and sentenced him to a fine of just over 100 euros. At the same time, this person sold these items for more than 5,000 euros.

The problem of black archeology is extremely sensitive for us.

Every month, our customs officers detain packages that are sent abroad and contain illegally shipped archaeological artifacts.

We clearly understand that customs officers can’t find all the parcels.

In Ukraine, black archeology has become a kind of national sport. In every village there are people who use metal detectors to look for treasures in the ground. And they often find what they are looking for.

I want to tell about two episodes that illustrate the depth of the problem of black archeology in Ukraine.

This summer, law enforcement agencies accidentally discovered a huge collection of items from the Hellenistic period near Kherson. We know that there used to be Greek cities on Ukraine's territory such as Olbia, Tyre, in Crimea - Chersonesos, Kerkinitis and others. But the collection was so huge that it would have been enough to set up an entire museum. I'm talking thousands of items. Unfortunately, representatives of the Security Service could only take three small boxes with ancient weapons and belts of Roman legionnaires, as well as two helmets. There was no transport to take everything out. And the place where the collection was stored was under constant fire from Russian troops. Unfortunately, most of the items remained where they were. And we don’t know what happened to them later.

A more successful story turned out with the collection of one of the former deputies of the Ukrainian parliament, which was discovered last year.

This collection counts more than 6 thousand archaeological items, mainly from Crimea. We were reclaiming them continuously for 5 days. Now the collection has been transferred for storage to the History Museum of Ukraine. Experts are carrying out the necessary examinations.

Illegal collecting is facilitated by specialized Internet web-sites where you can buy antiques or archaeological items. Here is an example of such a site. Black archaeologists often sell their findings there.

When it comes to combating illicit circulation of cultural values with legal measures, it’s noteworthy to mention the following problems:

1. The absence of established presumption of state ownership of all archaeological objects found on Ukraine’s territory. The existing norms are formulated so vaguely that this allows some participants of the black market not only to avoid responsibility but also to keep relevant values and even take them abroad, referring to the lack of reliable information about their origin.

2. The problem of assigning objects of uncertain origin to the objects of archaeology. Under the current wording of the relevant laws, some experts involved in criminal proceedings or administrative cases on the illegal export of cultural values do not qualify items as archaeological artifacts. If it is impossible to establish the specific location of the find, the described situation is possible and creates ample opportunities for violations.

3. The difficulty of proving criminal nature in cases of illegal acquisition, storage, and alienation of archaeological and cultural assets against the background of meager punishments for such criminal offenses reduces the value of law enforcement officers' work. The other side of this problem is that the attachment to punishments allows classifying the offenders’ actions as misdemeanors or minor crimes, significantly reducing the arsenal of opportunities for disclosing such offenses. At the same time, the potential punishments do not restrain the appetites of illegal businesses from archaeology. 

I must also say a few words about the steps that can improve the situation.

1. Strengthening Legislation and Enforcement

Ukraine needs to bolster its legal framework against illicit trafficking and ensure that laws are enforced consistently. 

It is necessary to strengthen criminal liability for illegal excavations, the appropriation of archaeological artifacts and their sale as well as illegal export of cultural property from Ukraine.

Today, these violations are mostly punished as misdemeanors or minor crimes, meaning violators do not face serious punishment.

In addition, it is necessary to investigate cases of illegal export of cultural property as intensively and publicly as possible. It does not matter whether they were taken out by Russian occupiers or Ukrainian smugglers. This question should always be on the table.

2. International Collaboration

Cooperation with international bodies, like UNESCO, can help to put pressure on Russia to return Ukrainian cultural property.

On the other hand, many trafficked items end up abroad. Collaborative efforts with other countries, including data sharing and joint operations, can help track and recover these assets.

Earlier I mentioned our cooperation with the Spanish police in connection with the illegally exported collection of a Ukrainian bank.

3. Awareness and Education

Educating the public about the value of their cultural heritage can instill a sense of pride and responsibility.

This is an important direction for our endeavors. Having found unique artifacts in the ground, one may not even realize what they mean for the history of Ukraine. He or she just wants to sell them at a higher price.

4. Technological Solutions

Digital documentation, tracking, and AI-driven solutions can be employed to monitor and protect cultural assets.

The National Agency for the prevention of corruption has created a special database recording thefts of cultural values by Russians. This database contains photos of stolen items, information about their history and the circumstances of the theft.

5. Economic Opportunities

By providing alternative economic opportunities, the allure of illegal activities can be diminished.

Summing it all up I can say that the post-2014 scenario in Ukraine has exacerbated the problem of illicit trafficking of cultural assets. While the challenges are manifold, the solutions lie in a combination of local actions, international collaboration, and technological interventions. As Ukraine works towards a stable political and economic future, the safeguarding of its rich cultural heritage must remain a priority.

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