Russia pulls off massive art theft in Ukraine

The looting of art in times of war dates back millennia, with the Greeks and Romans being among the worst perpetrators. Museums and private collections around the world are full of looted works of art that changed hands during conflicts. During World War II, a secret Allied army known as the ‘Monuments Men’ worked to protect European treasures from plunder by invading armies, with mixed success. Hitler’s stolen treasures are still being discovered across Germany. Millions of stolen parts may never be found.

So far there are no specially trained armies in Ukraine to protect treasures from Russian precision art thieves working under cover of war to empty museums and destroy important pieces of Ukrainian cultural heritage . There are only brave museum curators in the areas where the Russians have taken over, doing all they can to hide and fortify their art and antiquities, using supplies smuggled in from the West to help them make sandbag paintings and statues.

Since Russia began its invasion in February, 250 cultural institutions have been targeted by Russian munitions. Thousands of important museum pieces were destroyed in the bombings of Mariupol and elsewhere. In Melitopol, Scythian gold artifacts worth millions dating back to the 4th century BC. AD were stolen from boxes in which the museum had hidden them.

Brian Daniels, an anthropologist in Virginia, leads a project that monitors the destruction of cultural heritage in Ukraine. “There is now very strong evidence that this was a deliberate Russian move, with specific paints and adornments being targeted and taken to Russia,” he told The Daily Beast. His team saw surveillance video provided by Ukraine in which a Russian art expert in a white coat removed the gold with the precision of a surgeon, taking care not to destroy it. “It’s possible that this is all part of undermining Ukraine’s identity as a separate country by implicating legitimate Russian ownership of all their exhibits.”

Art historians are extremely concerned that Russia is stealing the soul of the country by destroying these objects. “We have museum buildings destroyed, all the collections burnt down, it’s a pretty barbaric situation,” curator and art historian Konstantin Akinsha, an expert on Ukrainian art, told Australia’s ABC Roundtable program. “[The] The other side of the problem is that in the small towns occupied by the Russians we have the first cases of random looting of museums.

A worker walks past display cases and protectively wrapped furniture in one of the galleries of Potocki Palace, one of western Ukraine’s architectural gems and home of the Lviv National Art Gallery in Lviv May 13, 2022.

Photo by Yuriy Dyachyshyn/AFP via Getty Images

In many cases across Ukraine, museum directors have refused to evacuate without their art and therefore huddle in fortified museums. “Admins cannot leave the building because [they will need to] come back at night in case something happens,” said Akinsha, who is in contact with many of them. “So they became sort of cave hermits… all over the country.”

Among the destroyed artworks are 25 works by Ukrainian artist Maria Prymachenko that were in the Ivankiv Museum near Kyiv. Ukrainian officials say the art was taken by Russian troops before they destroyed the museum in a missile attack.


View from the window of the Theater Square, sandbags barricade the sculpture-fountain “Molodist”, and the windows of the Museum of the Sea Fleet of Ukraine are covered with boards. Ukrainian authorities in Odessa have set up barricades in the historic center to protect key sites and monuments in the event of Russian shelling or possible street fighting.

Photo by Viacheslav Onyshchenko/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The ALIPH Foundation, which has worked tirelessly in conflict zones such as Syria and Afghanistan, where untold treasures have been destroyed over the past decades, said it was sending supplies such as boxes, blankets fire retardants and packing materials to Ukrainian museums to help them fortify the works in the event of a bomb attack. keep on going.

“The storage facilities themselves must comply with the standards,” ALIPH spokeswoman Sandra Bialystok said in a statement posted on their website. “They need to have good humidity control, be out of the elements, and the packing boxes need to be of a certain caliber in order to protect the artifacts because these artifacts are, of course, valuable and fragile.”

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