ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – Russian police arrested two suspects in the theft of over 220 pieces of jewelry, silverware and enameled objects from the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, pursuing a lead from an antique dealer who returned one of the stolen items to the state, news reports said Saturday.
The two men arrested early Saturday may be able to help authorities find about 70 of the stolen museum pieces, the Interfax and ITAR-Tass news agencies reported, citing unidentified police sources. Interfax said the suspects had confessed to the thefts, which they said took place over the past six years.
Rossiya and NTV television stations reported that one suspect was married to Larisa Zavadskaya, the curator in charge of the collection where the theft occurred. She died suddenly at her workplace when the inventory check began last October.
Investigators found over 100 pawn tickets for jewelry in the suspect's possession, the ITAR-Tass said.
The theft of the 221 items, with a combined value of about $5 million, was discovered after the inventory check was completed at the end of July.
On Friday, a Russian antique dealer discovered that a decorated 19th century chalice in his possession was among the items stolen from the Hermitage, and returned it to authorities.
Boris Boyarskov, the head of the Culture Ministry's department in charge of protection of cultural values, said the dealer had given investigators information that led to Saturday's arrests.
"Thanks to the conscientious antique dealer, we understood where the precious items could come from, and the law-enforcement structures have taken the necessary action," Boyarskov said on NTV television.
Earlier this week, St. Petersburg police also found a religious icon dumped in a trash bin near a police station after a tip from an anonymous caller.
Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky blamed the theft on museum workers, and the incident has put the spotlight on persistently poor security at Russian cultural institutions. Speaking to Ekho Moskvy radio Saturday, Piotrovsky refused to comment on the reports about the arrests.