“HE WHO controls the past controls the future.” Orwell’s dictum now faces a new test. Shortly before Russia annexed Crimea, the Bakhchisaray museum, north of Sevastopol, lent some valuable artefacts to an exhibition in the Netherlands. The question as to which country these (and other objects from Crimean museums) should return is creating a diplomatic conundrum.
“Let yourself be overwhelmed by the gold of Crimea,” boasts the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam. Never before has Ukraine lent so many mostly Crimean treasures. The Black Sea peninsula is filled with gems left by invaders over the centuries. The exhibition includes a Scythian gold helmet from 400 BC, pottery from Greek colonisers and a lacquered Chinese box that came along the Silk Road. “We have given our very best objects,” sighs Valentina Mordvintseva, a curator at the Crimean branch of the Institute of Archaeology. She fears she may not see them again.
Who is the rightful owner? On legal grounds, Kiev has the upper hand because the Allard Pierson signed a loan agreement with the Ukrainian state. And as the Netherlands does not recognise Russia’s annexation, Ukraine still owns the property. Yet the Dutch also signed contracts directly with the lending museums. And, says Inge van der Vlies, a professor at the University of Amsterdam, there is an ethical case for returning the objects to them. But there is no guarantee that Russia might not pinch the pieces the moment they arrive.
The Dutch foreign minister, Frans Timmermans, does not wish to meddle but he also wants to avoid being seen to accept a new form of art looting. This may be impossible; whether the gold returns to Crimea or to Kiev, each side will accuse the Dutch of pilfering. . . . .