As long as there has been war, there has been pillaging and theft. The earliest human conflicts included the looting of relics, precious minerals, and anything that could be found.
By WWII, art theft became very well known. The Nazis stole so much art from the European countries they occupied, that much of it still hasn’t been recovered.
Now, in Ukraine, Putin’s Russian forces are following a similar playbook, looting huge amounts of Ukrainian art from museums and collections.
Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, saying the nation must demilitarize and cease all support for neo-Nazi factions, such as the Azov Battalion.
The war that has been going on since then displaced over 12 million Ukrainians and killed tens of thousands of fighters and civilians on both sides.
The true death toll is still to be counted, but it’s clear this war has already been a tragic and horrific reminder of the suffering of war.
In WWII, there was a special group of anti-Nazi art and antiquity protectors who worked to hide and protect the cultural and artistic treasures of Europe. Ukraine doesn’t have that.
Russia robbed over 250 museums and antiquity locations in Ukraine since its invasion. Russia has also blown up large amounts of other museum collections during its attacks on places like Mariupol in the country’s southeast.
In addition to serving to enrich Russia and add to its large stores of black market goods and criminal trafficking, the art and statue thefts serve to culturally disempower Ukraine and strip away its identity and heritage.
In his speech explaining the action on Ukraine, Putin noted he doesn’t really consider Ukraine a real country.
True. Will push as far as he can, also ethnic-cleansing, political murder & art theft. May get away with whole of Ukraine & and a single vassal govt. Or if enough resistance might retreat with a vassal govt for West and & East as Russian territory? So West/NATO can claim success.
— Hozza (@HozzaArmidaleRd) February 26, 2022
The thefts that Russian forces have done are not just a few paintings here and there.
They have systematically taken huge amounts of very valuable artworks and artifacts, including a collection from Melitopol of golden relics that are from 400 B.C. and worth millions of dollars.
By taking many of the key artifacts of Ukraine, Russia not only gains value and prestige, but can also claim they had these artifacts all along.
Russia can claim Ukraine is an illegitimate nation which had collections that should have really belonged in Russia the whole time.
At this point, there are even curators and museum directors holing up in their buildings and trying to protect their collections from Russian incursions.
Of course, a guy in a suit and tie against a guy with an automatic weapon doesn’t end well.
Time to Crack Down on the Criminal Art Trade https://t.co/sBEMDL6ZM8 pic.twitter.com/YHRUTqbFq2
— Mark Juelich (@markjuelich) December 20, 2021
The Bottom Line
There’s no doubt the art thefts going on in Ukraine have led to millions in lost value and a huge blow to the country’s morale as well.
Where will they end up next? It’s hard to tell, and if they’re in private collections in Russia or worldwide, they may be very hard to trace.