UNESCO Is Training European Nations in How to Save Ukrainian Art Looted by Russia

ARTnews 19 January 2023
By Tessa Solomon

As Russia has devastated Ukraine’s cities with missile strikes and ground assaults, it has also robbed the nation of thousands of its artistic treasures. While the Ukraine’s cultural institutions tally their staggering losses, UNESCO is pursuing new strategies to stop looted art from crossing the besieged nation’s borders. 

The United Nations’s cultural body has partnered with Poland’s Culture Ministry to train law enforcement in countries bordering Ukraine on its west side in how to identify and recover art stolen from Ukraine by Russia. Authorities in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and Moldova, as well as representatives from Ukraine, are undergoing three days of workshops in the Polish capital of Warsaw this week, per the Associated Press.

To date, at least 230 cultural sites across Ukraine have been damaged or destroyed, and more than 15,000 pieces of Ukrainian fine art and artifacts have been stolen. Reports have surfaced of the systematic plunder of Ukrainian museums by Russian forces; Ukrainian politicians have called these incidents an attack on their national identity. 

The four regions of Ukraine annexed by Russia—Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia—have suffered some of the worst losses. Nearly the entire collection of the Kherson Regional Art Museum was cleaned out by Russian forces while in Melitopol, one of the first cities occupied in the invasion, a trove of Scythian gold dating back to fourth century BCE was stolen from a local museum. 

Given how easily looted artwork can disappear into the black market, UNESCO is also aiding efforts to collect evidence and compile lists of missing objects from Ukraine’s museums, religious buildings, and archeological sites.

Krista Pikkat, UNESCO’s director of culture and emergencies, described Poland as a “strong” partner for this initiative as more than 500,000 pieces of its cultural heritage were stolen by occupying powers during World War II. The Polish government is still working to reclaim its looted art from auction houses and private collections. 

“Poland is really a country at the forefront of this work,” Pikkat told AP.

Ukraine has accused Russia of violating the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, which was established after World War II and prohibits signatories from “any form of theft” of cultural property. Russia and Ukraine both signed the treaty.
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