Estonia returns to Ukraine the archaeological artifacts confiscated at the Estonian-Russian border


Today, the Minister of Culture Heidy Purga handed over to Ukraine the archaeological findings confiscated at the Luhamaa border crossing in 2018. Until January 28, the artifacts can be seen at the pop-up exhibition “Looted Treasures. Gold from Ukraine” in the Great Guild Hall of the Estonian History Museum.

In 2018, customs officials at the Luhamaa border crossing discovered archaeological artifacts of very high cultural value hidden in a truck that had entered from Russia – a total of 274 items, including coins from antiquity and the Middle Ages, as well as gold and silver items. After the artifacts were detained, evaluated, and conserved, it was determined that the rare findings had been looted from different archaeological sites situated in eastern and southern parts of Ukraine. Among the returned artifacts are gold items of the Scythians who lived in the areas of southern Ukraine in ancient times, medieval horse ornaments, and ancient and medieval coins. Today, the Minister of Culture Heidy Purga, and the Ambassador of Ukraine to the Republic of Estonia Maksym Kononenko signed a contract to hand the items over to the country of origin, Ukraine, in accordance with the UNESCO 1970 Convention.

“The war in Ukraine has shown that Russia does not follow international agreements, and the deliberate destruction and theft of Ukrainian cultural property is one of the methods of warfare. Ukraine has been deprived of the opportunity to decide on its historical heritage. The finds from eastern and southern Ukraine, seized by attentive Estonian customs officials in Luhamaa, are just one example of cultural values smuggled on the international black market. Today, we will proudly return them to Ukraine,” said Minister of Culture Heidy Purga.   

The international black market for cultural property is one of the largest illegal markets in the world, along with drug, arms, and human trafficking. In the event of armed conflict, looting of museums and archaeological sites and trafficking of cultural property objects is intensified.

“These are objects of very high cultural value, which should be exhibited in public museum collections. According to experts, many of the objects originate from so-called royal tombs in Ukraine. Considering the fact that the findings include items from different eras and sites, several important antiquities have been looted and the opportunity to scientifically study these objects and gather new information about history has been permanently taken away,” said Nele Kangert, adviser on archaeology of the National Heritage Board.

Estonia and Ukraine have both joined the UNESCO convention, which prohibits the illicit import, export, and transfer of ownership of cultural property. Based on the same convention, in 2016, Estonia returned a Viking-era sword that had been smuggled out of Ukraine and confiscated at the Estonian border.

The exhibition “Looted treasures. Gold from Ukraine” was created in cooperation with the Estonian History Museum, the National Heritage Board, the Tax and Customs Board, and the Ministry of Culture.