On 5 October 2016, a dispute regarding the return of archaeological artefacts from Crimea was heard before the Amsterdam District Court. Are they at the disposal of the Ukrainian government so that they must be sent to Kiev? Or was the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam obliged to return the objects to the Crimean museums that had lent them?
On 14 December 2016, confirming the position defended by Bergh Stoop & Sanders (Maarten Sanders, Gert-Jan van den Bergh and Martha Visser) on behalf of the Ukrainian State, the Amsterdam District Court ruled that the Crimean treasures had to be returned to Ukraine.
The District Court’s judgment sets a clear standard for the international application of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property. As 120 countries are party to the Convention, that standard is highly important. The District Court has clarified that the repatriation of national cultural heritage can only be invoked by the sovereign state whose heritage is involved. If the ownership or management rights of that cultural property are unclear (e.g. in terms of the museum in which it should be exhibited), that is a domestic matter to be adjudicated in the country itself following the return of the cultural property to the state.
Pursuant to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, in which states mutually undertook to prevent the illegal export of each other’s cultural property, an international system of export permits is applied. While the export of the Crimean treasures initially took place with a permit, the District Court has now ruled that, retro-actively , that export must be regarded as “illicit” (for application of the Convention), making the presence of the Crimean treasures on Dutch soil “illicit” after all. That is also a unique feature of this judgment; it is the first time that the Dutch Court has awarded cultural property to a state based on the implementation of the 1970 UNESCO Convention.