August 11, 2006

Russian stole art to treat wife’s diabetes: lawyer

By Christian Lowe

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The husband of a curator at the center
of a stolen art scandal in Russia said he and his wife were so
poor that they stole artefacts from the Hermitage museum to buy
insulin for her diabetes, his lawyer said on Friday.

The theft of more than 200 silver and enamel pieces from
the Hermitage exposed years of under-funding and neglect at
Russia's museums, with staff paid paltry wages and no cash for
adequate security. President Vladimir Putin has ordered an

Nikolai Zavadsky, 54, was charged with theft and his lawyer
said he admits pawning art from the museum. His wife, Larisa,
was a curator at the Hermitage. She died suddenly at work at
the start of an inventory that revealed $5 million worth of
artefacts in her charge were missing.

"His testimony was that he believed he was in a difficult
financial position and therefore (he and his wife) went down
this path," Zavadsky's lawyer Lyudmila Mikhailova told Reuters.

The thefts happened over several years. Asked about reports
Zavadsky said he needed the extra money to buy insulin for his
diabetic wife, the lawyer said. "Yes, those were his words."

"He said his wife started to bring these things home from
the Hermitage and he was not doing well professionally and he
did not reject this (idea) ... He does not deny it; he took all
the things to pawnbrokers," Mikhailova said.

The Hermitage, in the Tsars' Winter Palace, is one of
Russia's leading museums. It houses a huge collection including
works by painters from Leonardo da Vinci to Claude Monet.

Putin on Thursday ordered an inventory of all state
galleries, museums and archives to establish how many other
artworks may have gone missing.

The lawyer said Zavadsky earns 3,000 roubles ($112) a month
as a history lecturer. It is not known how much his wife
earned. The national average wage is about $400.

Russia's Federal Culture Agency issued Hermitage director
Mikhail Piotrovsky with a reprimand over the theft on Friday.
It said he "failed to carry out his duties in the appropriate
way," Interfax news agency reported.

Police are also holding Zavadsky's son and a St Petersburg
antiques dealer. Russian media said a fourth man had been
detained and that police believed he masterminded the theft.

Zavadsky's lawyer said he was only responsible for stealing
about 50 of the 221 items known to be missing. "It seems likely
that someone else ... was also stealing items," said

The Hermitage theft came to light when museum staff carried
out their first comprehensive inventory for decades.

(Additional reporting by Denis Pinchuk in St Petersburg)