NOVE successfully represents Ministry of Culture in dispute with Risti congregation of Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church

Attorney-at-law Veikko Puolakainen from Law Office NOVE represented the Ministry of Culture in its dispute with the Risti congregation of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church.

On 30.03.2022, the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal of the Risti congregation of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church and upheld the earlier decision of the circuit court, which allowed the state to retain the right of ownership to the collection of wooden sculptures known as the Võidukaar group or the triumphal arch, which had been taken for temporary restoration by the Soviet authorities in 1959, and the 1197 historical coins found in the church between 2010 and 2011.

The Risti congregation of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church had filed a court claim for the establishment of the right of ownership, asking the court to establish that it is the owner of the 1197 historical coins found in Harju-Risti Church during the renovation of the church floor between 2010 and 2011 and of the sculpture called the Võidukaar group or triumphal arch, which was historically located in the church. Both the county court and the circuit court found in their judgments that the coins constituted treasure and a find of cultural value that should belong to the state. In its judgment of 18 March last year, Tallinn Circuit Court denied the court claim for the recognition of the right of ownership to the coins and sculpture in full.

A spokesman for the circuit court told Estonian Public Broadcasting that the state at the time ordered the church in 1959 to transfer the object from its possession to the possession of a state agency. In the assessment of the court, such an action confirms the legal situation, as highlighted by the Republic of Estonia, evident based on legislation applicable at the time, in which the church did not participate in the turnover as the owner and did not have the rights of a legal person. Historically, it is also generally known that the Soviet Union nationalised the assets of churches in 1940 and 1945.

The circuit court emphasised that even if it were to be affirmed that the congregation’s right of ownership could be presumed as of 1959 on the basis of the law in force, then after the transfer of the item, the right of ownership of each holder of the item, including the defendant since the restoration of the Republic of Estonia, should also be presumed, which is why the congregation still had to prove its right of ownership. In court, however, the congregation was unable to prove its right of ownership to the sculpture (Võidukaar group or the triumphal arc).

Therefore, the circuit court found that in the given legal and day-to-day circumstances, the congregation’s right of ownership to the nationalised property could not have been restored otherwise than in accordance with the procedure established by the Republic of Estonia.

The circuit court noted that, no matter how unfair the situation may subjectively appear to the members of the congregation, there is no basis for establishing that the congregation has the right of ownership to property to which the congregation lost the right of ownership as a result of the Soviet occupation and which was not returned during the property reform. Such was the will of the state provided by law. The court emphasised that if one were to find that the only thing of importance was the fact that, prior to the occupation, the right of ownership belonged to the plaintiff’s predecessor, then it would render the Principles of Ownership Reform Act essentially null and void.

The Võidukaar group or triumphal arc, i.e. the priceless full-scale wooden sculptures of the crucified Christ, the Virgin Mary and Apostle John, carved in the 14th century, which were temporarily taken for restoration from Harju-Risti Church to the art museum by the Ministry of Culture of the Estonian SSR in 1959, are now housed in St. Anthony’s Chapel in St. Nicholas Church, next to Bernt Notke’s famous Danse Macabre.

The finding, comprising 1381 artefacts in total, including 1197 coins, was discovered between 2010 and 2011 during restoration and archaeological excavations in Harju-Risti Church that took place with the permission of the National Heritage Board. The 1197 coins found date from the 13th to the 20th century, with the majority dating from the 16th to the 17th century. The coins are currently deposited in museums in Harju county.