The battle to make Ukraine's treasures safe from bombs - and looters

There is a concerted push to protect heritage as galleries race to hide priceless collections

The Cherkasy Regional Art Museum in Ukraine has taken steps to protect artefacts from being bombed. Photo: Svitlana Strielnikova
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Buried deep underground in slate mines, the priceless treasures of a nation were secretly concealed for years from falling enemy bombs.

It was the Second World War, Britain had been defeated at Dunkirk and a German invasion seemed imminent.

The nation’s artworks were a prime concern of the UK’s wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill and he vehemently declared “Hide them in caves and cellars, but not one picture shall leave this island”.

More than 80 years later, his words still resonate for Ukraine as it desperately tries to protect its heritage from Russian bombs and looting.

Working with global heritage groups, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is replicating Sir Winston’s stance, as experts help to hide Ukraine’s treasures in safe and secure locations around the war-torn nation.

At the heart of the endeavour, is the UAE-founded Aliph Foundation, an international alliance for the protection of heritage in conflict areas, which was set up by Mohamed Al Mubarak, chairman of Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism.

It has invested millions into helping Ukraine to protect its treasures.

UAE-founded cultural group has helped about 200 institutions in Ukraine

Aliph’s project manager Alexandra Fiebig has been working with about 200 different Ukrainian cultural organisations to advise them on how to store their treasures.

“We mobilised very, very quickly after the beginning of the war and we reached out to our international network of partners, including Blue Shield and Unesco [the UN culture agency], who helped us to contact institutions in Ukraine, including libraries, museums, archives and national institutions, and those involved in the protection of heritage,” she told The National.

“We very quickly started conversations with these institutions and helped them finance the packaging materials they needed, especially in the early days.

“We sent specialist museum boxes, wrapping equipment, humidifiers and advised on safe places to keep the collections or somewhere else in the country they could be stored if they were in a hot area.”

UK caverns saved Constable’s The Hay Wain and Velazques The Rokeby Venus from wartime destruction

When the UK was faced with the same dilemma, it was forced to use explosives to create bigger entrances to its caverns, such as the Menod Mines in Wales, so the larger artworks could fit.

It selected the locations due to their conditions, in some cases small brick bungalows were built within the caverns to protect the paintings from variations in humidity and temperature.

It ensured thousands of historic works, including Constable’s The Hay Wain, Velazques The Rokeby Venus and Renoir’s The Umbrellas, were saved.

As winter approaches, Aliph is helping Ukraine to ensure its secret hiding places are equally secure.

“We have helped 190 institutions so far, the majority of which — around 150 of them — are museums,” Ms Fiebig said.

“We have sent packaging material to store the pieces and helped create storage spaces in locations in calmer parts of the country where they can be stored in adequate conditions, which do not have too much of a temperature variation or fire hazards.

“They need to be secure and confidential places. Now winter is coming, a lot of the funding is going into bringing in generators.

Storage cases have been sent to the Odesa Fine Art Museum. Photo: Odesa Fine Art Museum

“We have supported all kinds of museums, big and small. The diversity of the artefacts and cultural heritage is incredible.

“You immediately think of artwork and canvasses, but there are also statues, musical instruments, textiles, books, manuscripts, scientific collections, collections from universities, including a rare collection of stones.

“One of the biggest challenges was its collection of painted eggs; this is a prominent feature of Ukrainian culture, but it is quite difficult to safely pack 100-year-old eggs.”

Emergency protection projects Ukraine in museums and libraries. Photo: Odessa Fine Arts Museum

Working alongside Aliph are the Blue Shields, based at Britain's Newcastle University, who advise on protecting cultural property.

It was at the 1954 Hague Convention, where the first international treaty focusing on the protection of cultural property in armed conflict was signed, that the creation of the group was envisaged but it took until 1996 for it to come to fruition.

Led by Professor Peter Stone, their work is shrouded in secrecy during an active conflict, such as the one in Ukraine.

However, on a daily basis, they work to rescue and protect treasures and help states to create action plans before conflicts start.

“The key thing about the Blue Shields is that we are independent and neutral and impartial, and will not talk about any particular conflict. Most of our work in the Ukraine is confidential,” Prof Stone told The National.

“Our first step has been to ask all parties to abide by The Hague Convention to protect cultural property. By not pointing fingers we are able to work with all sides.

“Our mantra is that we try to protect cultural property during a conflict and it has to happen before a conflict starts. Most countries realistically fail to do that.

“The preparations that can save cultural property are frequently not in place. Once bombs start falling, people are more involved with trying to fight a conflict.

“We have 30 committees globally that will work closely with colleagues, as Denmark is with Ukraine. Our primary focus is to get countries to do this work before conflicts start.”

More than 200 cultural sites in Ukraine have been damaged

Unesco has so far verified damage to 207 cultural sites in Ukraine since the Russian invasion began on February 24.

They include 88 religious sites, 15 museums, 76 buildings of historical and or artistic interest, 18 monuments and 10 libraries.

The worst-affected regions are in eastern Ukraine and around the capital, with the Donetsk enclave having 59 verified damaged cultural sites, followed by Kharkiv with 51, Kyiv with 30 and Luhansk with 25.

Saint Joan of Myrrh Church, Kharkiv, damaged during shelling of the city. Photo: Emmanuel Durand

“Our conclusion is it's bad, and it may continue to get even worse,” Unesco's cultural and emergencies director Krista Pikkat said.

“Cultural heritage is very often collateral damage during wars but sometimes it is specifically targeted as it is the essence of the identity of countries.”

Looting of Ukraine's artefacts a major issue

Despite the best efforts of the cultural protection groups, looting has become a major issue and precious pieces have been appearing in UK and European auction houses.

This has led to calls for tougher measures to protect Ukraine’s history.

Lord Cormack, the president and founder of the UK’s all party arts and heritage group, has called for an urgent parliamentary debate to tackle the issue of looting.

“It is a pretty devastating list of the historic buildings destroyed so far but what makes it even worse is the way in which things have disappeared and been pilfered and traded on the illicit market, particularly in Russia itself. I have applied to hold a debate to draw attention to the issue of looting,” he told The National.

“Thousands of priceless treasure have been plundered. There was a 1,500-year-old golden tiara from the blood-letting rule of Attila the Hun stolen from Interpol in the Ukraine and nobody knows where it is, and as this war goes on we need, without … neglecting people, to concentrate a little more than we have on it.

“It is always a problem in war. Items are still being returned to their owners, which were looted in the Second World War. Wherever there is conflict treasures will always be plundered by crooks trying to make money.

“The antiquities squad in the Metropolitan Police is not the highest-funded unit; more attention to it should be paid.”

Precious gold was stolen from Ukraine

Major losses so far have centred around Russian troops allegedly stealing a collection of Scythian gold dating back to the fourth century BC. Museums in Crimea and annexed parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk enclaves have experienced theft, including looting at the prestigious Gorlovka Museum.

Lord Cormack believes the “true picture” will not be known for a long time.

He said the cases of theft were hard to prove as the gangs behind them created fake provenance papers and claimed the pieces had been in families for generations.

“It is very difficult to intervene in Ukraine at the moment with the hostilities. We know that many precious things have been taken away and put into what they consider safer storage,” he said.

“In the last war, pictures from the UK’s National Gallery were put in a Welsh slate mine. What we cannot control is where a bomb will drop. It is important we protect them by secreting them away in a safe place.”

Dr Stepan Stepanenko, a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, told The National looted items had been discovered on sale.

“The sale of heritage is an ongoing issue. Mainly in Islamic coins minted in central Asia in the eighth or ninth or 10th centuries. They have been found in European auction houses and originally came from Ukraine,” he said.

“There have been bronze age helmets which originated in Ukraine. Some in the UK. These are international crimes.

“The cases we are seeing over the last eight months have not been seen in Europe since the 1940s. This applies to personal items from Ukraine to historic and cultural items and artwork. We will not know the full scale until after the war.

“In the UK we have the laws to stop it but we need to make sure the law is adhered to and the police have the funds to stop it.

“We must return the items to Ukraine but finding the trail of who got it from the soil or a museum to the auction house and who is paying for it and the network involved — quite often criminal and terrorist organisations — is very difficult.

“We simply do not know who these people are.”

Unesco is working with museums and collections in Ukraine to try to combat the threat of looting.

The agency has been discussing with Kyiv the possibility of removing cultural heritage items from the country for the duration of the war, but Ms Pikkat has acknowledged that it is a “difficult call”, with the first move being to move collections to safer parts of Ukraine.

More than 50 pieces of art were secretly smuggled to Spain

In one exception, more than 50 works of art were smuggled out of Kyiv in a secret convoy in November a few hours before more than 100 missiles hit the surrounding area.

“The Kunsttrans trucks were packed in secrecy to safeguard the visual reference of the largest and most important export of Ukraine’s cultural heritage to have departed from the country since the beginning of the war,” said Thyssen-Bornemisza, founder of Museums for Ukraine and a board member of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.

The avant-garde artworks are forming a travelling global exhibition, In the Eye of the Storm: Modernism in Ukraine, 1900–1930s, which opened in Spain last month.

They are on loan from the National Art Museum of Ukraine, the Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum and other private collections.

The Aliph Foundation believes it is due to the vision of its founding vice-chairman, Mr Al Mubarak, that many of Ukraine's treasures have so far been saved.

“We get project requests in everyday and within a day, they get turned around within hours,” Ms Fiebig said.

“Everyday is a new set of challenges and we listen to our colleagues on the ground.

“One of the reasons we are able to be so flexible is because of Mohamed Mubarak's vision for the organisation. He wanted no bureaucracy, just action.

“He wanted concrete projects to be able to be moved forward when they are needed.

“Because of this great stress on flexibility, and this trust in Aliph by the UAE, it has really enabled Aliph to become this multinational instrument.

“It think it is this ethos that has absolutely helped save a lot of Ukraine’s pieces.”

For Lord Cormack, the protection of Ukraine’s treasures is vital — not only to prevent the destruction of irreplaceable pieces but to help the nation eventually rise from the ashes.

“There is a big difference between bombing and destroying churches and the wholesale looting of a museum. We are particularly concerned with the war. These are crimes of an appalling nature as they are destroying the heritage and patronage of a people,” he said.

“If you rob a people of their past, then you destroy their future.

“I think we should focus more than we have done — as this war develops — on what has been destroyed by Russia as it tries to obliterate not just a country but a civilisation. Ukraine needs our help.”

Updated: December 17, 2022, 9:19 AM