By Thomas Escritt
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - A priceless collection of gold artifacts from Crimea that was on loan to a Dutch museum when Russia seized the peninsula must be returned to Ukraine and not Crimea, a Dutch court ruled on Wednesday in a judgement likely to anger Moscow.
Kiev and the four museums have been wrangling over the fate of the archeological treasures, including gems, helmets and scabbards, which were on loan to Amsterdam's Allard Pierson Museum when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March, 2014.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, alluding to Ukraine's ambition to restore Kiev's rule over the peninsula, tweeted: "The Scythian Gold is coming back home - to Ukraine. I'm sure, it will also return to Ukrainian Crimea."
In an initial reaction, the Russian Culture Ministry was quoted by RIA news agency as saying “the museum objects should return to Crimea, where they were discovered and where, for decades, they were kept and studied by archaeologists."
The annexation, following the toppling of a pro-Russian president in Kiev, triggered the biggest confrontation between the Kremlin and the West since the end of the Cold War in 1991. It brought Western sanctions against Moscow and complications in the international arena for Crimean organizations from sports teams and cultural institutions to commerce.
Some Crimeans greeted the decision with dismay.
"I don't think it was a good idea to bring this before court," said Valentina Mordvinsteva, a historian and the exhibition's Crimea-based original curator, choking back tears.
"After this ruling what should Crimean people think about Ukraine?" she said.
But Elena Gagarina, director of the Kremlin Museum in Moscow, said she understood the court’s decision.
“In this case, when these objects were taken from the territory of Ukraine and belonged to Ukraine as a state, this decision seems perfectly reasonable to me,” Interfax news agency quoted her as saying.
"NOT THE END OF THE STORY"
The exhibition, its centerpiece a 4th century BC Scythian helmet, highlighted the rich history of the peninsula, a staging post on the silk road between from China to Europe, where Russian, Greek, Turkish cultures have met since ancient times.
The court ruled that only sovereign countries could claim objects as cultural heritage. Since only Ukraine, not Crimea, was sovereign, it was for a Ukrainian court to adjudicate the competing ownership claims.
"Ownership questions have to be settled when they have been returned to the state and in accordance with the law of the state in question," said judge Mieke Dudok van Heel. "The Allard Pierson Museum must return the treasures to Kiev."
A spokesman for the University of Amsterdam, owner of the Allard Pierson museum, said the museum would continue to hold the objects until all appeals were settled.
The Crimean museums have three months to appeal the ruling. Ukraine was ordered to pay a portion of the costs of storing the collection, estimated at 300,000 euros. But for Mordvinsteva, the story had further to run.
"It is not the end of the story," she said. "Such a rich story will never end."
(Reporting By Thomas Escritt; Editing by Ralph Boulton)