Monday, 7 December 2015

Stolen Paintings and Ukrainian Paramilitaries

There are a number of similarly-worded accounts in the media about this story ('Stolen Frisian artworks ‘held to ransom’ by Ukrainian militia' - see also the Telegraph):
High-ranking Ukrainian politicians are trying to extract ransom money from the Dutch government in exchange for paintings stolen 10 years ago from a museum, it has been claimed. [...] they had fallen into the hands of an ultra-nationalist militia group. ‘Our collection is in the hands of corrupt people who go right up to the top of Ukrainian politics,’ [...] Art theft investigators Arthur Brand and Alex Omhoff told the newspaper that Ukraine’s secret services were also involved in the plot. Brand told broadcaster Nos he had met the leader of the far-right militia but was unable to reach an agreement.

The unnamed 'militia group' seems to be a fraction of the OUN  (Oрганізація Українських Націоналістів) one of those Neo-Fascist groups of volunteers which are the focus of Putin's anti-Ukrainian propaganda.* The paramilitary group is one of many nationalist (often extreme right-wing) groups which has been fighting in the east of Ukraine against the pro-Russian rebels. Brand says the unit in question is led by the poet ("warlord") Borys Humeniuk (Борис Гуменюк, who is not to be confused with the Ukrainian ambassador to the Republic of Cyprus who has the same name). [Update: It turns out Brand was mistaken, Borys Humeniuk is not the leader of this unit and anyway says Brand is lying]. Other people reported by Arthur Brand to in some way now be involved in the present affair include Oleh Yaroslavovych Tyahnybok of the neo-nazi Svoboda party; (I guess that is supposed to be "right up to the top of Ukrainian politics") and Valentyn Oleksandrovych Nalyvaichenko, who for a short time (24 February 2014 to 18 June 2015) was the head of the Ukrainian security services (likewise that must be basis for the inflated claim "Ukraine’s secret services were also involved in the plot").  

The 24 paintings and 70 pieces of silverware, paintings were stolen from the Westfries Museum  Hoorn on the night of January 9, 2005. Last year, a picture of one of the stolen paintings appeared on a Ukrainian website and in July 2015, two individuals representing an OUN battalion reported to the Dutch embassy in Kiev claiming
to have the complete collection of stolen paintings from the Westfries Museum in their possession. A photo showing one of the paintings accompanied by a current Ukrainian newspaper was presented as proof for this claim. … After the embassy informed the Dutch police and justice department, they decided to offer the municipality of Hoorn the opportunity to contact the owners of the stolen art themselves. Because the municipality of Hoorn had no experience in such matters, they decided to bring in Mr. Arthur Brand who specializes in art crimes and tracking down stolen art.
The paintings seem to have originally turned up in a villa associated with a prominent figure under the previous Yanukovych regime ("The leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists  OUN, told a detective his militia found the paintings in a villa belonging to former Ukraine president Janoekovitsj")  and the question is how they got there. What connection could the art thieves have with officials of the former Yanukovych regime?

*In a previous incarnation, they also included the infamous "Banderowscy" who carried out large-scale ethnic cleansing against Polish and Jewish populations in 1943, 60,000-100,000 Polish civilians were massacred in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia

UPDATE 9th December 2015.


I do not speak Ukrainian but it's close enough to Russian and Polish to follow the rough outline of what's going on here. This is not looking good, for Mr Brand's story. He seems intent (for a reason I cannot fathom) to seek some underlying political context. But he is unable to prove the allegation (from "anonymous informers") that Sloboda, still less Tyahnybok himself is actually involved, his accusations of Nalyvaichenko does not get an explanation.

Mr Humeniuk explains to the programme's audience that his role, and that of Ukraine, are quite different from that depicted by Brand. The paintings are not in his hands (see here too), but in the hands of a "group outside the territory of Ukraine" (I suspect what he is alluding to is the rebels in Donbas with whom his unit was fighting), and his role was as a go-between.

Throughout, Mr Brand does not follow the discussion and frustrated by the lack of translation (apparently they had nobody who could go to Kiev to negotiate who could actually speak Ukrainian). The two versions of the story are explained by Humeniuk by Brand getting the wrong end of the stick (for example about "my men") due to having an "unprofessional translator". Indeed, the translator of the TV problem has a few problems actually keeping to the actual text spoken even when she was given time (which she was not). Mr Brand however is still convinced that he is right, there was no misunderstanding and Humeniuk and "his people" have the paintings.

At the end of the programme the press secretary of Svoboda answers Brand's accusation about Tyahnybok (she's not impressed - calls it a 'hallucination' if the Ukrainian word has the same meaning as its Polish cognate), and Humeniuk rounds off the discussion of the "art affair" which Mr Brand has set off, and questions in whose interests the Dutch are making these accusations against the Ukrainian state.

[Here is one indication as to whose interests this serves: "За награбленное в голландском музее украинские националисты требуют выкуп" Russian state TV Channel1].

Update Update 9th Dec 2015

"Svoboda" demands from the management of Dutch art institution immediately refute false accusations about Oleh Tiahnybok  Suggests Mr Brand was deliberately misinformed about Tyahnybok's personal involvement and suggests who would be behind it.....  Meanwhile, Kiev opens probe into case. Arthur Brand reveals:
Давайте поговоримо про Олега, мені простіше так його називати, бо прізвище важко вимовляється. Ви напевно знаєте, що Борис був у списку "Свободи" на місцевих виборах. Є білборд Бориса від "Свободи". Всі мої інформанти підтверджували мені, що Олег і партія "Свобода" тісно пов'язані з добровольчим батальйоном ОУН і вони врешті решт тримають в руках всі ниточки. Ми надали цю інформацію і в посольство Нідерландів, і в поліцію, і українським правоохоронцям.
Boris Gumeniuk represented the "Liberty Party" in the local elections "all my informants confirmed to me that Oleg and Party "Freedom" is closely related to the volunteer battalion OUN and they eventually hold in hands all the strings. We have provided this information and the Embassy of the Netherlands, and the police, and Ukrainian guards". Gossip is not evidence. Mr Brand seems to place a lot of naive trust in his eastern European "informants", who are they? Likewise:
 Що Ви можете сказати про Наливайченка? - Ми чітко заявили, що у нас є інформація на певних осіб. На Бориса Гуменюка, і це підтверджено самим Гуменюком, він зустрічався зі мною. Олег Тягнибок, якого підтвердило слідство. Якою є його роль в цьому - сказати не можу, але він пов'язаний точно. [...] А що стосується Валентина, то його роль ми досі не можемо перевірити. What can you say about Nalyvaychenko? - [...]  What is its role in this - I can not say, but he is just connected. 
"Connected"?  Evidence Mr Brand. 
Однак питання в тому, навіщо Ви так сильно концентруєтеся на політичних аспектах? Пишете про фашистів і націоналістів зі "Свободи". Який це взагалі має стосунок до розслідування? [...] Ну ви ж журналіст, ви розумієте, що треба дати трохи фарби історії, бо інакше ніхто її не буде читати
In the lack of evidence, it is just irresponsible to invent stories just to get more readers.

Update to Updated Update 11th December 2015

Сomment by the chief of the National Police of Ukraine Khatia Dekanoidze regarding paintings. It seems six months into the case, the Dutch prosecutor will be asked to make an official request for an investigation by the Ukrainians - had they not done this before?  Let Mr Brand turn over all the evidence he has against Oleg Tyahnybok and Valentyn Nalyvaichenko and make a statement which would explain why it is being reported on the basis of what he says that "high-ranking Ukrainian politicians" are involved in a process which goes "right up to the top of Ukrainian politics". Hard facts, not rumour and second-hand gossip. This will obviously have to be better than the evidence they claim they handed over on September 7th but which seem to have been not substantial enough to open a case.

Ms Dekanoidze is perfectly willing to host an independent group of investigators from the Netherlands to examine the material evidence and check the allegations of nefarious government involvement. Obviously, members of such a group can only do that job properly if they actually can read and speak Ukrainian.   


Arthur said...

Oh please... There was a high ranking official present from the Dutch Embassy. If you want to believe Borys, be my guest... He has been fired by his former commander because he was acused of theft.

Paul Barford said...

But it is not that official who has gone public with these accusations.

I am reporting what Mr Humeniuk said and from what I understood from the interview, it seems to me at this stage that there has been a series of misunderstandings (which are being perpatuated) and that you are unable to prove an official involvement (which for me is the key matter here).

I think this is important in that your accusations are damaging Ukrainian national interests (see the logo at the top of my blog) and playing right into the hands of others interested in discrediting her. So this matter now has - because of your accusations - an international dimension. Your work does not take place in a vacuum. Therefore I think it important to look at just what sources you cite for those accusations.

I'd rather be more interested in how they got into that 'villa' in Yanukovich times, and what that may tell one about other cold cases - including in Holland. But you have gone off in another direction. Please prove the official involvement before you accuse - I am afraid in the present complicated political situation it's not enough just to believe "anonymous informers" which is in effect what you said the case against the leader of Svoboda was based on.

The Dutch obviously should have engaged a primary negotiator fluent in Ukrainian - such as a Ukrainian museum professional.

Arthur said...

Paul, I am not going to discuss with you. Borys had two meetings at the Embassy. The first time with four officials from Dutch Embassy. The second time with me and an official. Both times he requested/ expected money. So either Borys lies or the 5 Embassy-officials and myself lie... Borys has been fired from his brigade because of stealing. But believe who you want ;-)



Arthur said...

And your comment: "your accusations are damaging Ukrainian national interests"

You mean we should shut up? They have our paintings and want 5 million. We tried to negiotiate for 5 months... But you think we should shut up because of what?

Paul Barford said...

1) Nobody is questioning whether money was involved, or whether Humeniuk was involved, the question is the additional accusations you have made about who else is allegedly involved.

2) I think in making such public accusations, the international implications of which go well beyond whether a museum gets its paintings back, a researcher obviously needs to be sure they have got the facts right and that the evidence is watertight. I did not see any evidence of that at all in the articles or interview which would substantiate the Orientalist conspiracy theory.

Arthur said...

Paul, not only I did make these accusations. Also the mayor of Hoorn, who is a state-official and the museum-director did it. Do you really think that they would do this without proof? This proof is in hands of Dutch and Ukranian authorities. Do you think that the Telegraaf, Hollands largest newspaper would have published this without proof?

Come on...

We want the paintings back which they have. That is our right. And hiding the truth is a bad thing. But you are entitled to your opinions.

I close this discussion.

Paul Barford said...

Khatia Dekanoidze is inviting Dutch specialists to join the team to investigate the allegations made by you, the mayor of Hoorn, the museum-director and the Telegraaf. The Dutch can present all of their evidence, and send people over to investigate the handling of the matter by the Ukrainians. I am sure the experience will be of value for both sides.

I look forward to learning the results.

Arthur said...

The Dutch minister Ploumen said that the Ukranians had been informed on the 7th of September. Because nothing seemed to happen and we knew that they were trying to sell the paintings to foreign criminals, we had to inform the public. That is all there is...

By the way, there has been a huge fight in Ukranian Parliament today. They don't need the Dutch authorities to ruin their reputation...

Paul Barford said...

Perhaps the Dutch proof and the manner in which it was passed on September 7th did not convince the Ukrainians. There has to actually be, in the Netherlands too I guess, evidence and not just hearsay to open a case. As I say, there is a difference between one "they are trying to sell the paintings" and another "they are trying to sell the paintings", and that is where the actual evidence comes in.

The fight was about corruption, but it seems to me that you are using it to bolster the Orientalist stereotype "that's the kind of people they are over there". That is not evidence.

Arthur said...

So they come to us to hand over the stolen paintings, they demand money we cannot pay, they refuse to give them back.... Then the Dutch Government and myself bring the story in the press and you acuse us of being racists... You should be ashamed.

Paul, with people like you one cannot discuss. This is ridiculous.

Have a nice life ;-)

Paul Barford said...

"racists"? I did not say that.

As we can all see, you are missing the point here again and again, all the time you are ignoring what I actually say and reading something else into it. It begins to look like the problem we are discussing may have a similar origin.

I am not trying to "discuss" this with you, having thrown out such accusations, it behoves you now to simply present your evidence, not your personal interpretation of it.

Arthur said...

We have shown the evidence to Interpol and the Dutch authorities. They have decided that it is good enough to name these persons publicaly. It is now a police-investigation. We cannot show the proof here for you Paul...

Just trust Interpol, the Dutch polive and the authorities. We are working on this together. In Holland the mayors are appointed by the state. The mayor accuses them too. You think they would allow her without proof????

I have nothing against the Ukrain, I have loads of friends there and I love the country. We just want our paintings back...

Anyway, I get your point, hopefully you get mine too ;-)

Paul Barford said...

So "Interpol and the Dutch authorities" have "decided that it is good enough to name these persons publicly" BEFORE any investigations have taken place?

Is that true, that this negative press campaign was ordered by Dutch politicians? At what level?

I do not expect proof here on my blog, what I am saying is a proper investigation of alleged proof needs to take place BEFORE going public with such allegations, whether it is by the Dutch government or a private individual.

Arthur said...

Paul, of course it has been investigated. You just want to see something that is not there. At which point are you going to blame Putin? ;-)

Paul Barford said...


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