Estonian customs confiscated a gold treasure from Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine which will be returned to Kyiv.
Referred to as an extraordinary detective story by those involved, events started unfolding in mid-December 2018 when a Scania truck coming from Russia and driven by 53-year-old Latvian citizen Ivans was pulled over at the Luhamaa border crossing point during a routine check.
"At first, a simpler check was carried out /.../ they looked at the truck box and found the driver had seven kilograms of meat with him. But an individual cannot bring meat into the country without veterinary control documentation. That is when the first red flag went up, Elika Brosman, specialist at the Estonian Tax and Customs Board, said.
"The first inspection then revealed a yellow piece of metal wrapped in paper in the truck's cab. The item seemed to be old and made of gold, whereas the driver could not explain where it had come from," Toomas Huik, commander of the Luhamaa border point, recalled.
When the driver was ordered to drive into the inspection hall for a closer look, he started acting strange.
"The driver tried to sneak to the back of the truck as an attempt at misdirection, /.../ next, he jumped into the inspection pit and started yelling, pretending he had had an accident. He made a lot of noise, said he was hurt in the hopes that people might rush to his aid and forget that they had started to look for something. But it was quite obviously a show he was putting on, and he did not get too far," Brosman said.
A more thorough inspection of the cab came across ten similar parcels which revealed a total of 274 pieces of gold and silver jewelry, coins, a chalice, horse headgear and other artifacts. The driver could not say anything about the items' origin, claiming that he was approached by two Russian-speaking men in the neutral zone between the two countries' border crossings.
"They asked him to take some electronic devices in a box to Riga and promised to buy Ivans a €30 bottle of cognac for his trouble. The driver's version of events is that while the three of them went to buy the bottle of cognac, someone also put the archeological finds in the cab of the truck. According to his version, he did not knowingly place them there," said Ingmar Aas, assistant prosecutor of the South District Prosecutor's Office.
Heritage conservation specialists identify some of the finds
The customs notified the National Heritage Board of the find. The latter then commissioned an expert analysis from the Estonian History Museum, which found the coins alone to be more than 2,000 years old, from the time of King Lysimachus of Thrace.
"It certainly had the wow-effect and was nothing me or my colleagues had seen before," historian and numismatist Ivar Leimus said.
"It's enough to make an archeologist cry because you understand the cultural significance of the material, meaning that the sites of original discovery have been decimated and can no longer be scientifically studied," said Nele Kangert, archeology adviser for the National Heritage Board.
"This is a golden stater of King Lysimachus of Thrace. Lysimachus was a very famous person, being one of the commanders of Alexander the Great and among those who divided up the country after his death. He later became the king of Thrace back on the Peloponnese. That is when this coin was minted," Leimus said.
While the coins revealed their secrets relatively quickly, it took a number of years to identify the origins of the jewelry and pendants. Kangert and Leimus combed through online databases and forums, comparing the finds to items put up for auction.
"At first, all we had were questions. It was immediately clear, after consulting with a small group of Estonian archeologists, that we had no expert in Estonia," Kangert said.
"We were completely in the dark. The golden beads are the worse as it turns out they have been made on all continents for over 2,000 years, with the exception of Antarctica," Leimus remarked.
"When archeological finds do not come with information about where they were first discovered... we could find the same Viking era coin in Jõhvi, Novgorod or Kyiv. Without that context, we can only rely on recent research and information that has already been recorded," Kangert said.
The first analyses suggested at least some of the items are from the coast of the Black Sea and from around 2,000 years ago, while there was nothing to suggest they have been stolen. Because full-scale war in Ukraine was still three years in the future, cooperation with Russia was pursued and it was found that the items should be returned to the country they came from.
"It was a very complicated case because the items were from the Black Sea region in Crimea, while things had not culminated in war at the time," Brosman said, adding that is why Russian experts were contacted.
The puzzle was finally put together by Ukrainian archeologists who proved that the finds were largely from eastern and southern Ukraine, including from sites in occupied Crimea which had fallen victim to looting. There is a wealth of evidence to suggest that so-called dark archeologists have transported similar Scythian and Sarmatian gold jewelry to Russia before.
"What the Ukrainians pointed out was that hundreds of archeological digs have been held in Crimea with the blessing of the occupying authorities since 2014. The Ukrainians do not have an overview of what has been found and have been robbed of their chance to govern their own historical legacy," Nele Kangert commented.
"It is part of a major problem. /.../ I believe it to be a conscious tactic for Russia. Another way to wage war," assistant prosecutor Laas said.
It is unclear whether the items came from a smaller museum that was looted or from illegal digs. The experts have determined that even though the treasure contains coins from Olbia and the king of Thrace, the most valuable finds are roughly 2,300-year-old pieces of Scythian gold jewelry. The Scythians' wealth grew out of the slave trade on the Black Sea and their strong mounted steppe warriors in the 5th-3rd centuries BC.
"Societies always have those whose belongings can fit in a plastic bag and those driving Lamborghinis. And these guys were driving Lamborghinis. They had themselves buried in colossal burial mounds, some of which were ten meters tall. And it is quite likely they were unearthed from such burial sites in southern Ukraine," Ivar Leimus said.
"The material is quite diverse, containing parts of several treasures from different regions. This suggests we are dealing with a black market network, persons who unearthed these items, sold them to a fence, after which they were taken over the border, which also means there is a collector somewhere who did not receive what they paid for," Kangert said.
Their historical value is that they represent ancient cultures, while we are used to living on the edge of the world where finding a single Roman brooch is important. Elsewhere, cultures have been in contact for millennia. That is where these things have developed. That is where the cultural wealth of the world is found, which is what this haul really represents," Leimus remarked.
Driver fined, while alleged smugglers uncaught
While investigators only managed to determine a part of the Luhamaa treasure's market value – ending up with an estimate of €73,000 – experts believe its worth to be many times greater.
Truck driver Ivans finally admitted to smuggling on March 21 of last year and was handed a pecuniary punishment of €500. Nothing is known about who gave Ivans his orders, and prosecutor Ingmar Leis believes Ivans was a simpleton whom organized criminals used for their purposes.
"Those people kept calling him six months later to ask about progress with the jewelry. From what I've gathered, Ivans must have thought Estonia might even return the items after analyzing them. But by the time criminal proceedings got to a point where we asked Ivans about it, wanted to ask for the phone number or about the people who contacted him, he was no longer in touch with them either," Laas explained.
The fact that the investigation dragged on for five years is all the more noteworthy since it coincided with an international scandal over a similar treasure. Back in 2013, four museums in Crimea sent to the Netherlands necklaces, helmets and around a thousand other ancient artifacts as part of an exhibition, while Moscow started to demand the treasure's return after it annexed Crimea. After years of disputes, a Dutch court decided to return the items to Kyiv late last year, a decision welcomed by the international public, President Volodymyr Zelenskii and Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. Estonia has decided to follow suit and will be returning the treasure to Ukraine.
"We are dealing with a country's historical memory, and it is our role to return to Ukraine the few fragments of treasures taken out of the country that reach us," Nele Kangert said.
Editor: Merili Nael, Marcus Turovski