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October 23, 2023

Scythian gold grouping illicitly removed from Ukraine recovered by Spain's Policía Nacional

Officers working with Spain's Policía Nacional have recovered a collection of Scythian, Greek craftsmanship VIII-IVth century BCE gold jewellery.  The pieces, which consist mainly of necklaces and earrings, had been fenced by a criminal network involved in the sale of Ukraine-sourced antiquities via a web of sales transactions, at least one of which was identified in Madrid.   

According to statements released by Spain's National Police, the jewellery had previously been exhibited in an unnamed Kyiv museum between 2009-2013.  While the museum was not mentioned in the law enforcement press release, one of the striking pieces was fairly easy to recognise, which has helped identify at least one public showing of several of the now-seized pieces.  

The piece we first recognised is a striking openwork royal chest decoration, made up of four strands of woven gold, depicting images of animals and plants.  The object is similar to the famous Mozolevsky pectoral, found in 1971 in the Tolstaya Mogila mound near Ordzhonikidze.  This one however is stated to have possibly come from Kul-oba, a burial mound of a Scythian leader, discovered in 1830 near Kerch, Crimea which was partially looted prior to formal excavations. 

This recovered pectoral, a second container for storing aromatic oils decorated with carnelian stones, a pair of the earrings, a pin, and a collar necklace all match objects which have been part of an exhibition entitled “From the Depths” which was held at the then unfinished Mystetskyi Arsenal Museum on Mazepa Street in Kiev.  

Along with unique exhibits from state museums, the exhibition included a grouping of gold jewellery from the private museum collection "Rodovid", and were registered with the Ministry of Culture with inventory numbers. None of these items could be sold or taken out of Ukraine (unless their export was authorised for a  exhibition loan).

According to Russian and Ukrainian language news sites, the 21 items displayed in Kiev at this earlier exhibition were found at different times in burial mounds of the Scythian period on the territory of Ukraine which had survived "having passed through many hands, from tomb robbers to private collectors".

The seized jewellery is believed to have been smuggled illegally out of Ukraine on/around 2016.  Police have indicated that the confiscated cultural assets had been shopped with forged ownership documents which claimed that the jewellery was the legal property of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.  To assist in carrying out this ruse, the objects were marketed through a priest who is reported to live in the Spanish capital.

In furtherance of their sale, this group of  traffickers had the jewellery grouping appraised where their estimated worth was listed as 60 million euros.  Having been removed without export authorisation, they constitute stolen property from the country of Ukraine.   The items therefore serve as the evidentiary basis by which three Spaniards and two individuals of Ukrainian nationality have been arrested.  All five individuals are being charged, in Spain, with having participated in the commission of the crime of money laundering.   

According to police press announcements, the traffickers who circulated this jewellery grouping were identified as the result of a well-coordinated criminal investigation which was initiated in 2021, and involved law enforcement coordination from several countries, and including investigators from Spain, the Ukrainian Security Service, the Interior Attaché Office in Bulgaria, Albania, North Macedonia, Cyprus and the International Cooperation Division.  Police became aware of the network when a Ukrainian national was discovered to have sold one of the objects, a gold belt with rams heads to a Madrid businessman.  Following on this first lead, police discovered that the Scythian pieces were being sold via different commercial companies, likely utilised to disguise the ownership of the objects, and to not attract the attention of national controls relating to this ongoing conflict.  

For the present, all of the recovered  pieces are being studied at the National Archaeological Museum and the Cultural Heritage Institute of Spain.

By: Lynda Albertson