SPECIAL CARGO! The history of the return of Ukraine’s cultural propertyExhibitions

SPECIAL CARGO! The history of the return of Ukraine’s cultural property

SPECIAL CARGO! The history of the return of Ukraine’s cultural property
Мистецький Арсенал
вул. Лаврська, 10-12
Київ, Київська область 01010

This exhibition began with a painting that was late for the opening. It’s still making its way to Ukraine from overseas. It all started with a desperate letter from a museum worker to an American auction house: “Please stop selling this painting at auction!!!” Those three exclamation marks would set in motion the return of the painting “Secret Departure of Ivan the Terrible before the Oprichnina” to the Dnipro Art Museum.

Works such as this were looted from Ukraine by the trainload, but only a few have been returned, and only by virtue of the persistence of devoted individuals. Paintings, frescos, historical documents and photo archives, collections of antiques and archeological artifacts, inventory books and catalogues—it’s impossible to calculate exactly how many millions of cultural objects Ukraine lost as a result of its colonial status and the historical cataclysms of the 20th century. The systematic looting of Ukrainian heritage started with the Russian Empire, continued under the Soviet Union, with the period of WWII and German occupation being especially painful, and even today artifacts continue to be stolen.

Cultural activism takes places quietly behind the scenes and involves researching archives, monitoring art auctions around the world and writing to colleagues in the field. Three exclamation points in an email is the highest level of emotion there is in this kind of work. The return of property that was illegally appropriated by other states is a complex and multifaceted process, which is why the public is seldom aware of it.

Every item returned has its own story, often involving the state security services and honest researchers of other countries. The accounts of their return from abroad are fascinating, and read like detective stories with long searches, negotiations, unexplained circumstances and intrigue. But all the successful cases have one thing in common—they become possible because of the perseverance of people for whom their profession is not only a formal obligation, but also a way of life

The label SPECIAL CARGO! marks the successful end to a story, when items are carefully packaged, transported and received as something having special value. But this label is impossible without the incredible efforts of numerous experts. This project is dedicated to everyone who at one time or another contributed to the return of cultural property to Ukraine and to those who are involved in this process today.


  • Project implementation

    Mystetskyi Arsenal team


    Supported by the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport of Ukraine



  • Institutional partners

    11 Mirrors Design Hotel
    Senator Apartments
    Premier Hotels and Resorts
    Insurance Company «БРОКБІЗНЕС»
    General media partner:
    UA: Suspilne Movlennia
    Media partners:
    Ukrainskyi Tyzhden
    Tickets online kontramarka.ua
    Telekompaniia 11 kanal. Dnipro
    Suspilne: Kharkiv

  • Project partners:

    Dnipropetrovsk Art Museum
    Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine
    National Historical Library of Ukraine
    The Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko National Museum of Arts
    National Museum of Ukrainian Folk Decorative Art
    Kharkiv Art Museum
    Kherson Regional Museum of Local History
    Central State CinePhotoPhono Archives of Ukraine named after H. Pshenychnyi