A specialist gang is smuggling valuable historic artefacts out of Ukraine and into Russia, according to an international team of academics and digital technology experts who are tracking thefts.
“There is now very strong evidence this is a purposive Russian move, with specific paintings and ornaments targeted and taken out to Russia,” said Brian Daniels, an anthropologist working with archaeologists, historians and digital imaging specialists.
From a laboratory in the US state of Virginia, Daniels and his colleagues have monitored the despoiling and destruction of cultural targets since the invasion began, and have detected patterns in the crimes.
The trail of thefts focuses heavily on precious Scythian gold. These are high-worth ancient filigree pieces, often depicting animals. They were produced by tribes of the area of central Asia and eastern Europe once known as Scythia.
“These items are visually stunning, and there are now so many reports of thefts it is evident that it is a strategy,” said Daniels. “The Ukrainians, of course, are also very keen that we establish a list of stolen items.”
Daniels told the Observer that it was hard to know if the monetary value was the most important factor for the Russians, or whether the objects were chosen for their cultural significance. “There is a possibility it is all part of undermining the identity of Ukraine as a separate country by implying legitimate Russian ownership of all their exhibits.”
What is clear to Daniels is that the thefts tend to follow the menacing interrogation of museum curators and custodians. Russian attempts to locate and steal hidden artefacts in occupied Ukrainian cities are becoming more determined.
“We have growing concern for the museum workers and security staff, particularly when they find themselves behind Russian lines,” said Daniels.