August 7, 2006

Russian officials say Hermitage theft wake-up call

By Oliver Bullough

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The theft of $5 million worth of
treasures from the Hermitage museum was an accident waiting to
happen, officials said on Monday, appealing for urgent action
to secure the priceless collections of Russian museums.

The husband and son of a curator at the St Petersburg
museum have confessed to stealing at least some of the 221
artifacts over a period of six years. Only six of the objects
have been recovered.

The museum houses one of the world's greatest collections
of impressionist and early 20th century art, although the
stolen pieces were Russian-made enamel and silver work from the
middle ages and 19th century.

"Often it happens that to recognize a problem, you need to
live through a tragedy," Boris Boyarskov, head of Russia's
state heritage watchdog, told reporters.

"For us, these events in the Hermitage are not an accident,
but completely normal. Every year we register between 50 and
100 cases of theft of cultural treasures from museums."

The absence of the Hermitage's exhibits was discovered
during an audit of the collections and announced last week, but
officials warned that such stock-takings moved so slowly that
decades might pass before thefts might be uncovered.

An audit ordered for the Hermitage in 1999 has so far only
checked 153,000 of the almost three million objects in the
collection. A nationwide audit had only checked 12.5 million of
the 50 million objects in Russia's museums.

"This is the misfortune of the 1990s, the misfortune of low
financing of museums, the misfortune of the fact that people
were sitting without salaries and needed to get money," said
Mikhail Shvydkoi, head of the state culture agency.

"Protection against fire, protection against criminals
requires enormous money, and I'm not even talking about the
enormous money that is needed to build new buildings (for the
museums)... I would not even dare to name a figure."

Boyarskov said an electronic database with photographs was
desperately needed to track objects, and also to ease the
process of trying to reclaim stolen exhibits smuggled abroad.

Anatoly Vilkov, Boyarskov's deputy, showed reporters a
small icon that had been recovered from an antiques dealer, and
said officials hoped more items would be recovered soon.

The Hermitage said on Monday it would more closely monitor
individual curators, change working schedules and tighten
access to store rooms.