Hubbub at Russia's Hermitage over '30-year' art theft
By Nick Allen Aug 1, 2006, 15:29 GMT
Moscow - Russia's latest stolen art scandal mushroomed Tuesday as it appeared that items missing from the State Hermitage Museum worth at least 4.8 million dollars were not swiped by some masked superthief but by staff over the years.
The disappearance of 221 pieces of jewellery, enamelled artifacts and icons from repositories of the world famous museum in St Petersburg came to light in a routine inventory check.
But police said the trail could lead back as far as three decades.
'Only 19 of the 221 vanished items were in the care of living curators, 202 were listed to curators who already died,' a spokesman said, adding that there had been no full inventory for many years.
A female curator responsible for many pieces died at work when a sub-inventory began in November, police said without giving details.
Citing inadequate security and 'serious moral problems and dereliction of duty,' the museum said Monday that staff must have been involved in the disappearance of the items, which independent experts said could fetch several times the given value at auction.
Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky later said it was premature to speak of theft and that the pieces might turn up in other storage areas.
But describing their disappearance as 'a stab in the back' to the Hermitage's efforts to become more independent, he noted the plight of museums around the world.
'We are all aware of thefts in famous museums and the brazen audacity with which this is done,' Piotrovsky said.
Police were expected to question students of an institute who helped during recent reorganization of artefacts in two repositories. Customs officials were alerted in case there was an attempt to smuggle the missing items abroad.
The federal agency in charge of preserving Russia's cultural treasures was due Wednesday to begin a probe into the latest incident highlighting poor security at the country's museums.
'Unfortunately this is not the first time that historically and culturally valuable objects or documents went missing,' agency head Boris Boryaskov said. 'This all shows the poor protection of our national cultural heritage.'
Housed in the old Tsarist Winter Palace, the Hermitage employs 2,500 people and receives up to four million visitors a year. Around 60,000 of its three million items are on display. Work is underway to improve security but the management acknowledges that many of the more than 1,000 rooms are vulnerable.
This was not the first major theft at the museum, which was founded by Tsarina Catherine the Great in 1764 and houses antiquities and decorative art, including collections of Impressionist works.
In 2001, the Pool in a Harem painting by 19th century French artist Jean-Leon Jerome was cut from its frame and removed from the building. The work worth one million dollars was never recovered.
Five years earlier a Russian tourist was stopped leaving the country with three cases filled with Hermitage collection books, documents, drawings and stamps worth several million dollars.
That same year, a former army officer stole 200 leather-bound volumes, some dating back centuries and worth 2 million dollars, from Moscow's State Public Historical Library.
Most spectacularly, a senior member of an anti-corruption task force formed by ex-president Boris Yeltsin in 1994 stole dozens of ancient manuscripts worth an estimated 250 million dollars from the Russian National Library in St Petersburg on behalf of an Israeli collector. He served four years in jail before resuming work as a lawyer.
Having insufficient funds for modern security precautions, rural churches with valuable icons also became a target of thieves in recent years.
Meanwhile, a thriving black market grew for almost any kind of stolen rarity.
Last summer, a man was detained on a Moscow street while trying to sell a meteorite weighing 40 kilos that he took from the city planetarium during renovation work. He had sought 50,000 dollars from a dealer after learning the relic's true worth.© 2006 dpa - Deutsche Presse-Agentur