ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – The gold- and silver-decorated Orthodox Christian icon encrusted with pearls had long been stored in the Hermitage — the world-renowned St. Petersburg museum that was the ornate Winter Palace for the Russian imperial family.
Now it has been stolen, and its theft, along with 220 other religious items, jewelry, enameled objects and precious item — a theft valued at more than $5 million — has the Russian cultural world in a spin.
The arrest of the son and husband of a late museum curator suspected of involvement in the crime has focused attention on the appallingly lax security and record keeping that has become so common at many of Russia's cash-strapped museums since the 1991 Soviet collapse.
"The event in the Hermitage is not an isolated incident, but part of a pattern," Boris Boyarskov, the head of the Culture Ministry's department in charge of protection of cultural valuables, said Monday. He lamented "the betrayal by the elite of the museum community, the curators."
The pilfering of the 221 precious items at Russia's most famous museum reportedly took place over the past six years and was only discovered after a routine inventory check began last fall. Hermitage officials announced the theft on July 31.
In what the museum described as the "many strange aspects of this affair," the curator, identified in the Russian media as Larisa Zavadskaya, died suddenly at her workplace when the inventory check began last October.
The Kommersant daily on Monday reported that she had suffered a heart attack, speculating that this was brought on by the knowledge that the disappearance of the missing items would be revealed. The paper did not identify its sources.
A few days after the theft was announced, St. Petersburg police said they found a wooden religious icon — The Assembly of All Saints, depicting saints clustered around the Virgin Mary — dumped in a trash bin near a police station after they received a tip from an anonymous caller.
A breakthrough came when a Russian antique dealer turned over to authorities a decorated 19th-century chalice that she said was in her possession. Boyarskov said the dealer, whom he called "conscientious," gave investigators information that led to the arrests Saturday of the curator's husband and another unidentified suspect. Investigators reportedly found over 100 pawn tickets for jewelry at the husband's house.
On Sunday, the net widened to include the son, said to have worked at the Hermitage until late 2004, police reported. On Monday, St. Petersburg police said they had recovered a third item — a religious icon — that had been stolen from the Hermitage, RIA-Novosti reported.
But even as authorities announce the recovery of some items, the theft again glaringly exposes the lack of security at Russian institutions. Tracking inventories and securing collections at most Russian museums remains antiquated. Curators often keep inventory records by hand, writing them out longhand in notebooks and storing them in folders tied with string.
The head of Russia's federal culture agency, Mikhail Shvydkoi, said the thefts showed an urgent need to modernize museums' cataloging systems. Only one-quarter of the nation's estimated 50 million artworks have been inventoried recently, he said.
The Hermitage, which began entering its collection of 3 million items onto an electronic catalog seven years ago, had only registered 153,000 so far, Shvydkoi said. At that rate, it would take another 70 years to complete the task, he said.
"All major museums today in Russia, both in Moscow and St. Petersburg, need a modern system for preserving their collections. And as long as this problem is not resolved, we will remain hostage to the human factor," he said.
Shvydkoi also said museum staff salaries were far too low.
Boryaskov said about 50 to 100 thefts are registered each year in Russian museums, and although outright robberies are less frequent now because of new security measures, inside jobs are increasing.
In 2000, more than 300 masterpieces were reported stolen from Moscow's State Historical Museum and 180 objects disappeared from the armory collection of the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg.
The Hermitage, which was started by Catherine the Great in 1764, holds vast holdings of antiquities, decorative art and Western art including world-renowned collections of Italian Renaissance, 17th- and 18th-century Dutch and Flemish, and impressionist paintings.
But the immense size of its collection — which stretches over more than 1,000 rooms — means that it has difficulty in keeping tabs on it.
In a list posted on its Web site, the museum revealed that the inventory check showed 12 of the works to be fakes, including seven precious figures originally assumed to be by Peter Carl Faberge, the famed goldsmith and jeweler to the Russian imperial court.