Within days of Russia’s invasion in February, museum workers in Ukraine knew what was at stake. In early March, Taras Voznyak, the director of the Lviv National Art Gallery, said in a statement: “Putin knows that without art, without our history, Ukraine will have a weaker identity.”
The deliberate destruction of a country’s heritage is considered a war crime by Unesco. Ukraine’s government claims that, by the start of May, Russian-led forces had strategically looted more than 2,000 objects, including ancient Scythian and Sarmatian gold, from heritage sites in the occupied and largely destroyed cities of Mariupol and Melitopol. These claims have not been independently verified.
Now, as armed conflict continues to rage in Ukraine’s east, heritage workers in the west are engaged in a very material culture war: the complex task of preventing Ukraine’s cultural artefacts from ending up in Russian collections, or entering the international black market.
As soon as the invasion began, officials at the International Council of Museums (Icom) began working with Ukrainian partners to compile an Emergency Red List of Cultural Heritage at Risk, a document compiled by museum workers in conflict zones that can then be accessed by law enforcement authorities who may potentially come into contact with Ukrainian artefacts as they are moved, illegally, across national borders.
As the war reaches its six-month mark, the battle for Ukraine’s artistic heritage has been buoyed by the publication of a specifically Ukrainian list. The list will be made accessible to International law enforcement and border authorities by the end of the month.
“Work on the Red List began in early April,” says Anastasiia Cherednychenko, the vice-chair of Icom Ukraine, over email. “We acted immediately after the Russian troops retreated from the suburbs of Kyiv, and the region overall, as a result of the defensive actions of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.”
“Museum collections in the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk have been in great danger since 2014, when Russia first invaded,” Cherednychenko says. “Now the situation has become catastrophic. In addition to individual cases of looting by the Russian military, there is evidence of mass robberies of the collections of Ukrainian museums.”
The Red List is the work of a broad coalition of museums from across Ukrainian society. The Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko National Museum of Arts, the National Memorial to the Heroes of the Heavenly Hundred and Revolution of Dignity Museum (Maidan Museum) in Kyiv and the State Museum of Natural History of the National Academy of Sciences in Lviv have all engaged in the effort.
But is it too late? Depending on your perspective, this Red List can be seen as rapidly created or slowly produced. As a comparison, Icom’s Syria Red List was published in 2013, more than two years after the Syrian Civil War broke out in 2011, while an Afghanistan Red List was created in 2006, five years after war broke out in late 2001. Last year, Icom published a Red List focusing on 45 museums in 10 countries across South East Europe, including Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Moldova, which borders Ukraine. But Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the ensuing “hybrid war” in Ukraine should have prompted Icom to create a Ukrainian Red List sooner, insiders say.
A list for Ukraine at that time “would have been a natural progression”, says Ted Oakes, Icom’s Paris-based heritage protection coordinator. “The war in Ukraine just accelerated that.” This new Red List highlights 50 objects from across the country, including, Oakes says, “religious icons, folk art from the 20th century, three Socialist Realist paintings, ancient jewellery and Scythian artefacts.”
Red Lists do not focus on works that have already been stolen. Instead, they list types of objects that are most at risk. The list is distributed as hard copies that can be downloaded by law enforcement officers and border security officials who might encounter cultural objects but may not know a lot about art.
To achieve this, Icom has also liaised closely with Interpol, the international police association, who recommend that “border control authorities remain on high alert for any valuable objects exiting Ukraine and that objects of suspected provenance be checked against the publicly available Interpol Stolen Works of Art database”.
“In Ukraine, the issue of the illicit trafficking of cultural goods has traditionally been high on the agenda,” a World Customs Organization (WCO) official tells The Art Newspaper. “Such trafficking has been an integral part of the national training curriculum for customs officers for a number of years.”
Protecting Kyiv’s antiquities
This is reflected in the WCO’s Illicit Trade Report. “Ukraine is one of the largest contributors when it comes to sharing information on the number of seizures of cultural goods,” the official says.
“The annexation of Crimea, the war in Donbas and the [current] war, [happening] since February 2022, have only exacerbated certain factors and added new trends and patterns in trafficking that may not have existed before,” the official says.
In June, the Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine announced it had uncovered a stash of more than 6,000 antiquities in Kyiv worth millions of dollars and possibly looted from Crimean museums. The find was connected to money laundering in the Russian-facing separatist Donetsk. Among the items were Scythian akinakes daggers and Trypillian pottery, which were found in the office of Valery Horbatov, a former Ukrainian parliamentarian who had been a top official in Crimea in the early 2000s.
Samuel Andrew Hardy, a cultural property criminologist and a post-doctoral research fellow in cultural heritage and conflicts at the Norwegian Institute in Rome, has been closely monitoring Ukraine.
His work in this field, termed “conflict antiquities”, could make the basis for a new Indiana Jones film. In August, Hardy shared the work of the Warsaw-based British archaeologist Paul Barford, who had noticed that an Alabama-based eBay trader was offering Khazar antiquities from “the south eastern region of modern-day European Russia”, which could be a reference to Ukraine.
For transnational criminal networks, it’s business as usual. “Some Russian law enforcement officers are not just corrupt and taking bribes, but are actively involved in looting and trafficking,” Hardy says. “There are antiquities looters among the invading forces.” Hardy has tracked down names, emails and addresses through open-source research. He has not yet found evidence that the artefacts were looted as a result of orders from President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin, as the Ukrainian government claims. But Hardy does note that “Russian nationalistic rhetoric” frequently claims Russia “is a better steward of cultural heritage than Ukraine” and is thus deserving of its artefacts.
“We know people in Russia have been buying stuff that was looted in Ukraine,” Hardy says. Objects have made their way to Spain, the UK and Austria via circuitous routes, he says. “Some people in Russia have trading networks that flow west.”
Before the war, Hardy conducted training sessions with Ukrainian law enforcement. But the government fell short in its official measures to fight trafficking, he says. “Cultural heritage activists have tried very hard, far harder than peers in other countries, to secure their country’s heritage,” he says. “They have committed to fight looting with a forensic focus I haven’t found in any other country.”