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Gold haul that a priest stole in Ukraine after Crimea invasion recovered in Madrid

The operation resulted in five arrests, including a member of the Orthodox Church believed to be the ringleader. The 11 stolen items are valued at over $64 million

Policía recupera en Madrid tesoro de oro robado por pope en Ucrania Detenidos cinco por tráfico ilícito de joyas históricas de Ucrania en Madrid
Part of the artistic treasure from Ukraine that was recovered by Spanish police, in an image provided by the Interior Ministry.

Spain’s National Police has recovered 11 gold items valued at more than €60 million ($64 million) that are part of Ukraine’s historical heritage, but made their way to Spain through unlawful channels in 2016, two years after the Russian annexation of the Crimea Peninsula, the Spanish Interior Ministry reported on Monday.

Five arrests were made, including three Spanish nationals and two Ukrainians. Of these, one is an Orthodox priest whom the police believe to be the ringleader of an alleged criminal network that specializes in trafficking cultural assets from the war-torn country.

The recovered items were described by the police as “gold jewels of great historical and economic value” dating back to the Greco-Scythian culture of the 8th to 4th centuries B.C. The jewels were going to be sold in Madrid to investors through a network of companies.

According to sources familiar with the investigation, codenamed Operation Cuzco, the latter began “years ago” when officers from the Historical Heritage Brigade of the National Police received information that a Ukrainian citizen living in Madrid was trying to sell gold antiques from his country through unofficial channels since, due to their high historical value, they could not be sold through lawful outlets such as auction houses.

As a result of this early investigation, in 2022 the police located a safe deposit box in Madrid that contained one of the pieces that had been sold to a local businessman. It was a gold belt with rams’ heads that had been part of an exhibition held in a Kyiv museum between 2009 and 2013. When that exhibition ended, the belt and other items ended up, for unclear reasons, in the possession of the Orthodox priest, who has now been arrested. “When there is a context of conflict, as occurred in Ukraine in 2014 with the annexation of the Crimea Peninsula, it is easier for cases of plunder to occur,” said police sources.

After that first discovery, investigators confirmed that the suspects were in possession of other antiques with similar characteristics, all of which had been introduced into Spain before May 2016 through an import declaration in which false documentation was used to “prove” that the jewels belonged to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Last week, the Ukrainian parliament took the first step to ban the Ukrainian Orthodox Church — which has historical ties to Moscow and to which, according to a survey by the International Institute of Sociology of Kyiv, only 4% of the country’s inhabitants belong ― from operating in the country after President Volodymyr Zelenskiy accused its leaders of collaborating with Russia after last year’s invasion.

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