August 1, 2006

Artworks vanish from Russia museum, theft possible

By Dennis Pinchuk

ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - Historic Russian art
worth nearly $5 million has vanished from the Hermitage, one of
the world's greatest museums, its director said on Tuesday,
with suspicion falling on members of staff.

Auditors noticed the loss of pieces of silver and enamel,
made by Russian craftsmen in the Middle Ages and 19th century,
in stock-taking last month. News agencies said the lost
artworks included icons, religious works and items with
precious stones.

Police said the museum collection was so big that the
pieces could have disappeared at any time in the last 30 years,
but Director Mikhail Piotrovsky suspected the loss was more

"So far we are not talking about a theft, but about a
loss," he told reporters in the museum, a baroque landmark that
rises above the river Neva in Russia's second city of St

"(But) there is no doubt that this could not have happened
without the participation of museum staff ... it is a stab in
the back of the Hermitage, a stab in the back of all museums."

Police launched an inquiry but there was a possibility that
the pieces had simply been moved around within the collection
and their movement had not been catalogued.

The Hermitage is one of Russia's top cultural attractions.

Residents of St Petersburg boast it would take a visitor 10
years to see all three million items in its collection, which
ranges from prehistoric art to one of the world's finest
selections of impressionist and early 20th century paintings.

Piotrovsky said the 221 missing pieces -- worth some 130
million roubles ($4.84 million) -- had disappeared from a
store-room with very limited access. One of its guards died
late last year at the time the stock-taking started.

"The absence of these pieces was confirmed on July 23-24. I
think (the pieces could have disappeared) over several years.
Only three people could get in there. And many things were
looked after by a guard who is no longer among the living,"
said Piotrovsky.

Police told local news agencies it was too early to say
what had happened to the exhibits, although prosecutors had
opened an investigation under a law linked to "mass theft."

"Because the Hermitage has not held a full audit for
decades, but only random checks, it is hard to fix the period
of time when the objects were removed. Our preliminary
information suggests this period could exceed 30 years," a
police source told Interfax news agency.

"The objects may be in (other parts of the collection),
where they were moved without documentation. It is too early to
say anything definite," RIA Novosti quoted its source as

The theft of art treasures in Russia boomed after the fall
of the Soviet Union, with criminal gangs raiding some of the
world's top museums for lucrative markets abroad.