The Dutch Allard Pierson historical museum got more than it bargained for after it borrowed a collection of ancient treasures from Ukraine for its exhibition entitled ‘The Crimea: Gold and secrets of the Black Sea’. Amongst the treasures is a trove of Scythian gold. Shortly after the loan agreements were concluded, the artefacts shipped and the exhibition commenced, Crimea declared independence from the Ukraine and acceded with Russia. Officials from both Ukraine and Crimea now insist that the pieces be returned to them, leaving the museum with the task of determining where the artefacts should go when the exhibition ends later this year.

The Russian President’s envoy for international cultural cooperation has insisted that the situation be settled at an inter-museum rather than state level, an approach that could lead to the pieces being returned to the museums who contributed the artefacts; four out of five of which are located in Crimea. The Ukranian Ministry of Culture, on the other hand, insists that the artefacts be returned to the main territory of Ukraine because they form part of the cultural heritage of Ukraine. Crimea’s culture minister says the treasures should be returned to Crimea.

Legal ownership uncertainty

The artefacts arrived in the Netherlands following loan agreements concluded prior to the political upheaval in Ukraine and change of power in Crimea. The loan agreements, concluded before the exhibition left, are most likely being scrutinised by lawyers on all sides to determine whether their terms can assist in determining where the artefacts should be returned to. Unsurprisingly, this is likely to be one of those scenarios that the individuals involved in drafting the loan agreements did not consider at the time of drafting. Consequently, the agreements will be interpreted in accordance with the standard rules of interpretation under the governing law of the contracts (presumably Ukrainian law).

In particular, the Allard Pierson Museum may be looking at its various obligations to the Ukrainian Culture Ministry as well as the Crimean museums from where the treasures are on loan, which may not be compatible with each other now that Crimea is under the effective control of a foreign state.

International uncertainty

Another factor complicating the situation is the continuing uncertainty that surrounds the legal effect of Russia’s treaty of accession with Crimea. The controversial referendum in Crimea on 16 March saw a 96% vote in favour of joining the Russian Federation, but the validity of that referendum is disputed under Ukrainian law, which holds that it was unconstitutional. It has also not been recognised by most nations or by the UN; the UN declared on 28 March that it would continue to view Crimea as part of the Ukraine. Under Russian law, however, Crimea became part of Russia on 21 March 2014 and Russia has, to some extent, territorial control.

The Allard Pierson museum says that the objects will remain in the Netherlands until the end of the exhibition, which has been extended from 1 June to 31 August 2014. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the museum extended the time it has to make a decision but unless the Netherlands intends to hold on to the items for the duration of the international dispute over Crimea, a determination will at some point have to be made. Failure to return the artefacts to their rightful owners may have significant implications for the museum and, possibly, its insurers.

Gillian Waugh