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Ukraine: Smuggling Leads To Loss Of Cultural Legacy

  • Lily Hyde

Like many former Soviet states, Ukraine is fast losing its artistic and historical heritage to the international criminal trade in antiques and cultural treasures. Correspondent Lily Hyde reports from Kyiv on efforts to stop the illegal flow of unique historical objects out of Ukraine.

Kyiv, 1 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A glossy catalog resembles that of an exhibition of some of Ukraine's most precious examples of cultural and artistic traditions. But the items featured -- icons and crosses, paintings, jewelry and books -- will most likely never be exhibited in the country. They have all been stolen and carried out of Ukraine illegally for sale on the international market.

The catalog is the work of a new state organization created to protect Ukraine's cultural treasures from being carried across the border. The service hopes to counter the problem of vanishing cultural and artistic objects that has afflicted Ukraine and much of the former Soviet Union.

Churches and families alike have been robbed of icons and crosses that are generations old. Museums and libraries have been targeted as well. In 1997, thieves entered a museum in central Ukraine and escaped with two paintings attributed to Dutch and French masters. The paintings were eventually recovered in England. A year later, a visitor to the Ukrainian National Library in Kyiv walked out with one of the world's four known copies of Nicolaus Copernicus's 1543 work "On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres."

Not all of Ukraine's art thieves have been traditional criminals. Staff from Israel's Yad Vashem museum earlier this year smuggled out of Ukraine frescoes painted by the Jewish writer Bruno Schulz. They claimed afterward that the works rightfully belonged in Israel.

Svetlana Shklyar, who co-heads the new cultural-protection organization, says Ukraine has to preserve its stock of artistic treasures, much of which was looted during World War II:

"Ukraine sustained many losses during World War II. Books and paintings were stolen and destroyed. During the war we were spiritually impoverished. Now we need a renaissance, and the renaissance is impossible without a spiritual renaissance."

Ukraine also lost many of its valuable items to Russia during the Soviet era, and is still struggling to have them returned from museums in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, weak security and a lack of adequate cataloguing have left many cultural treasures easy prey to professional art thieves. Shklyar cites Interpol statistics indicating that Europe has no fewer than 40 powerful criminal groups specializing in the theft and sale of antiques and works of art.

Hampered by inadequate information about the value and importance of many of its objects, Ukraine is also hindered by a web of contradictory legislation that is not always easy to enforce. Current law on the transport of cultural treasures says that only items catalogued by the national museum, culture, archive, and library funds are banned from export. The catalogues, however, are far from complete.

Other legislation says that any object of religious, cultural, historic, or artistic value pre-dating 1945 cannot be taken out of the country. The law traditionally covers items such as icons, paintings, china, medals, and coins. But such items are readily available at street markets and in licensed antiques shops, where most of the customers are foreign tourists. Oleg Kepko, deputy head of the antismuggling department at Ukraine's Borispil airport, says shopkeepers are not always honest about the legality of carrying such items abroad:

"Unfortunately, those shopkeepers don't tell you important information [like the fact] that you can buy these items, you can use them, you can possess them -- but only on the territory of Ukraine. It is forbidden to take them elsewhere."

Customs officers at Borispil, Ukraine's main airport, have registered 92 incidents over the first half of this year of historical valuables being taken out of the country. During the same period last year, 64 such cases were registered. In the majority of cases, the goods are confiscated without charges being pressed against the people carrying them, who are most often tourists who do not attempt to hide the items from customs officials.

Kepko says that in seven of the cases, large amounts of objects were involved and led to criminal investigations. The airport customs service donates confiscated objects to churches, museums, and libraries. Kepko says the objects his service has donated this year have been valued at roughly $24,000.

But of all the objects listed in the catalogue published by Shklyar's cultural-protection service, only one item -- a painting -- has been tentatively tracked down, to a private collection abroad.

Shklyar and a team of experts are continuing to catalog those objects deemed "unique monuments of portable culture." Eventually, all such objects will be included in a state register and have their own passport. Shklyar says the blanket ban on all objects pre-dating 1945 is to be lifted. At that point, she says, all antiques shops will be expected to list clearly which objects can be legally taken abroad, and to provide proof of purchase and ownership.