A Dutch court has ruled that a priceless collection of gold artifacts from Crimea that were on loan to a Dutch museum when Russia occupied the peninsula must be returned to Ukraine.
The Amsterdam district court said on December 14 that Crimea was not a sovereign country and so could not claim the treasures as cultural heritage.
The ruling drew a swift and angry reaction from Russia and praise from Ukraine, whose president said it means that "Crimea is ours, period.”
Kyiv and four museums in Crimea have been wrangling over the fate of the archeological treasures, which range from pots to a Scythian helmet dating back more than 2,000 years, ever since Russia seized control of the Ukrainian peninsula in March 2014.
The Ukrainian government claimed that, as state property, they could not be returned to territory outside its control, while the Crimean museums argued the objects must be returned by the Netherlands to the institutions from which they were on loan.
The treasures, popularly known as Scythian gold, are in the Netherlands because they were borrowed from the four museums in Crimea and one in Kyiv for an exhibition in early 2014 at Amsterdam's Allard Pierson Museum.
"The court ruling is that the artifacts have to be brought back to the state of Ukraine as they form a part of the cultural heritage of the state of Ukraine," Illya Bilderbeek, a spokesman for the Amsterdam district court, said.
Shortly after the court issued its ruling, the Russian Culture Ministry said the decision "violates the principles of international exchanges between museums and the right of the people of the Crimea to have access to their own cultural heritage."
The ministry called the ruling an "extremely negative precedent" and said it contradicted "the norms of international law on the protection of cultural values."
Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky had said earlier that a decision in favor of Kyiv would be "pure theft."
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko welcomed the ruling in a post on his Facebook page.
"The decision by the district court in Amsterdam means that not only the Scythian gold is Ukrainian. Crimea is also Ukrainian, Crimea is ours, period,” he said.
Kyiv had argued that the country of origin is Ukraine, not Russia.
"Crimea is part of Ukraine [and] it is only our national authorities that can decide to which museum [the artifacts] should return," Ukrainian Deputy Culture Minister Svitlana Fomenko told reporters at the courthouse on December 14.
"As you know, Crimea is occupied by Russian Federation and we have no access to Crimea," Fomenko said. "We cannot protect our cultural heritage in Crimea."
In testimony on December 12, the lawyer acting for Ukraine, Maarten Sanders, told the court that "in terms of UNESCO treaties on cultural heritage, the treasures have to go back to Kyiv for as long as the Crimea is occupied territory."
Meanwhile, the culture minister in the Russian-imposed government that administers Crimea, Arina Novoselskaya, said on December 14 that the museums will appeal the court’s decision.
The four Crimean museums have previously described the treasures as belonging to the people of Crimea.
Andrei Malgin, director of the Tavrida Central Museum, told Dutch television on December 12 that "this is the cultural heritage of local tribes and peoples."
The almost 600 artifacts, including pots, gold leaf and other objects, date back more than 2,000 years.
Among the most valuable objects are a 2,400-year-old Scythian helmet, Han Dynasty lacquer boxes from the Silk Road, and a gilded scabbard.
'Sacred' To Russia
The treasures from the four Crimean museums, which were displayed in an exhibition titled The Crimea: Gold And Secrets From The Black Sea, have been in safe storage at the Dutch museum while awaiting the court’s decision.
The German dpa news agency reports that the court on December 14 ordered Kyiv to pay 111,000 euros for the storage and security costs of the treasures.
If the Dutch legal system accepts appeals in the case, the treasures could remain in storage for months more pending a final decision.
The museum has already returned the pieces which belonged to a museum in Kyiv.
In ancient history, Crimea was a crossroads for trade between Greeks and Romans in the west and Scythians, Huns, and Tatars in the east.
The treasures unearthed in Crimea are popularly referred to as Scythian in reference to the tribes of various ethnicities which shared a seminomadic lifestyle and for centuries dominated a broad swath of Eurasia extending from the edge of western Europe to the eastern frontier of China.
Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 after flooding the peninsula with troops to secure key facilities, taking control of the regional legislature, and staging a referendum denounced as illegitimate by Ukraine,. the United States, and a total of 100 UN member states.
In an address in December 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the peninsula was "sacred" to Russia.