News about the fact that on February 9 Eastern-European Antique House in Moscow will put up for sale a unique collection of silver coins and hryvnias from the time of Kyivan Rus’, stirred up Ukrainian informational and partly academic environment and aroused heated discussions. Chief Editor of the Museums of Ukraine magazine Viktor Tryhub, who among his other regalia has the title of “veteran of searching for cultural values,” has immediately responded to the news. He placed an official address to the President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych and the Prime Minister Mykola Azarov on the magazine’s website. In his address Tryhub asked the top-rank authorities to purchase old valuables and bring them back to Ukraine. He also appeals to the All-Ukrainian Union “Svoboda,” emphasizing that the colors of the party that would get back the old valuables to the country is not important. “Very few of such rarities have survived till present time. There are only a few copies of the rarities of such level in Ukrainian museums. Most of them were taken away, looted, or passed on to other owners by the order of the rulers,” said Tryhub. “Where was it all found? Where was it preserved? Who is the present owner of the collection? Might there be apparent criminal trace? There is a chance that some of the rarities were kept in public museums.” Thus, it remains a mystery how these historical valuables of the Kyivan Rus’ got to Moscow. It is very likely that everything was done legally. However, while there are no clear answers to these questions yet, Mr. Tryhub already requested to check Ukrainian museums in order to find out whether those hryvnias, about to be put up on sale, might have been taken from their collections. Viacheslav Kyrylenko, chairman of the Committee on Culture and Spirituality, has made an official appeal to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, head of the SBU, the Interior Minister, Minister of Income and Fees, and to the Ministry of Culture requesting immediate inspection of the facts of the auction planned in Moscow. If it will be discovered that the coins had been illegally exported from Ukraine, the government should do everything possible to return the priceless treasure to Ukraine and bring the perpetrators to justice.
The situation received a lot of publicity even though, for example, according to the arguments offered by the deputy chairman of the Ukrainian Center for Museum Development Oleksii Kopytko in his article published in response to the statement made by Tryhub, in a bit over a year seven silver coins from the time of Volodymyr the Great were put up for auction in Moscow. Therefore, the fact of selling these coins cannot be the cause of such high publicity. “Any collector can find information about at least eight other coins on collectors’ forums and on-line auctions. What’s more, right now there are four (!) silver coins from the time of Volodymyr the Great are put on sale in one of the antique shops downtown Kyiv,” wrote Kopytko in his article. He calls the information wave caused by statements made by Tryhub hysteria that diverts the public from the real problems of the industry. According to the expert, the problem lays in something different: “In recent years the illegal search for historical valuables using metal detectors has increased to unprecedented level. It became a real disaster! It is estimated that there are between 90,000 and 140,000 illegal searchers out there. That means that there are tens of thousands of people going around the country and take all metal elements – fibulas, arrowheads, buckles, and coins, from the historical monuments like ‘vacuum cleaners.’ Why is it scary? Because metal elements present excellent material for age determination. Fragment of a fibula, which does not have any special material value, may reveal a whole new layer of knowledge,” wrote Kopytko.
The Day asked the historian Yurii Savchuk, who served as the head of the State Service of Control over Displacement of Cultural Values across the State Border before its disbandment. In this situation, according to the expert, first of all we need to determine the origin of these items. Journalists should also check this information and keep up with the experts’ comments. “It is important to examine and explore these issues before any information will be open for public, especially in case with the state, which has to act in accordance with international law. Hundreds of thousands, millions of items around the world are handled in all kinds of museums and in private collections. The facts of displacement of the valuables are quite natural and enhance the process of cultural development. The question here is the origin of these objects and in this case I cannot say anything. I heard this news from different sources and the information is quite contradictory,” Mr. Savchuk explained to The Day. “I can give the following example: in Russian State Museum in Moscow on the Red Square there is a seal of the Zaporizhia Cossack troops. It was purchased for the museum collection by Alexei Uvarov in Nizhniy Novgorod at a fair in the middle of the 19th century. Can we somehow doubt, debate, and I don’t even mention here making any political statements, especially from the government, to return this seal? In my opinion, there are no reasons for doing any of this.”
If everything was done legally, then it would be inappropriate to talk about forced, in a sense, return of the historical monuments. If the state really needs them and considers them to be important, it or some patrons could take part in the auction and then pass the redeemed valuables to the National Museum. This practice has been exercised in many countries. In France, in particular, state museums involve the community in purchasing of the exhibits it considers important. People donate money from as little as one euro and feel that they contributed to an important process. Theoretically this could work in Ukraine too. The main thing here is the awareness of people about the importance and value of the cultural and historical monuments not in the material, but in spiritual and academic aspect, as an important part of national memory and consciousness. “Certainly, such practices as patronage, transfer of collections, presenting gifts to museums are common worldwide. It consolidates society, develops the patriotic feelings, and enriches spiritual and material treasures of the people. Of course, we could suggest such initiative, it is important to fulfill it to the end. On the other hand, the whole procedure should be consistent and it should comply with current legislation, in this case, with the legislation of the Russian Federation on the import and export of cultural property across the state border,” said Mr. Savchuk. In his opinion, it is important to talk about the circulation of cultural valuables in a broader context that the simple ‘buying and selling’ concept.
“I mean the valuables that are stored legally in the museums of the world, Europe, and the neighboring Russia. This is the first step to make us familiar with those valuables and collections, which have never, neither in 20 years of Ukraine’s independence, nor in a long period of Ukrainian Soviet Republic, been presented or put on display in Ukraine. Clearly, such work is by far more efficient these days because there takes place the introduction of the historical monuments in the scientific context, they occupy an important place in the historiography, in historical consciousness and historical memory of the people,” said Savchuk.
The historian told us that the National Museum of History of Ukraine has agreements with a number of leading Russian museums for presenting a number of items that have never been introduced in the scientific and cultural environment in Ukraine on the International Museum Day. “Now we are at the final stage of reaching the agreement on this and such statements, which reach our colleagues in a distorted form, could really harm our cultural circulation,” summed up the expert.