ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – A senior Russian police officer said Saturday that a late curator, who has been the focus of an investigation into the theft of art from the State Hermitage Museum, had offered to sell some of the stolen items to an antiques dealer.
Russia's most famous museum announced last month that 221 items worth $5 million, including jewelry, religious icons, silverware and richly enameled objects, had been stolen. The museum, on the banks of the Neva River in St. Petersburg, was the former Winter Palace of the czars.
The thefts highlighted lax security and antiquated record-keeping at Russian institutions and underscored the funding crisis that has plagued museums and archives since the 1991 Soviet collapse.
Larisa Zavadskaya, the curator in charge of the Russian art collection where the thefts occurred, died suddenly at work when a routine inventory check began last year. Earlier this week, police detained four suspects, including Zavadskaya's husband and their son, and charged them with involvement in the thefts.
Zavadskaya's husband confessed that he and his wife were involved in some of the thefts and that they took place over several years, his lawyer said.
Authorities so far have recovered 17 of the items stolen from the Hermitage, most recently a gilded silver cross dating from 1760 that a couple of St. Petersburg antique dealers returned to police Saturday.
The dealers told investigators the curator repeatedly visited their shop to offer some of the items they later recognized from pictures of stolen objects released by the Hermitage, said Vladislav Kirillov, a senior police officer in charge of the investigation.
One of the dealers, Alexander Ponomarev, said Zavadskaya did all the bargaining, claiming she was selling the objects belonging to her friends who had been in a car accident and needed money for treatment.
"They brought many items, and that (the cross) was the only one we agreed upon," Ponomarev said in televised remarks.
Kirillov said Zavadskaya's husband sold the cross a year ago, even as an inventory check began in the collection, and had kept the receipt. Police said he sold the item for 20,000 rubles, or $750 — less than one-tenth its real price.
Russian media said Zavadskaya, an art scholar widely respected by her colleagues, lived in a ramshackle apartment that she and her family shared with other tenants in a dilapidated building in the historic center of St. Petersburg.
Amid suggestions that low salaries for staff were partly to blame for the theft, Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky said pay for museum curators could be increased. He also announced the museum would spend $5.5 million next year on security, including electronic monitoring of staff entering and leaving the collections.
The head of Russia's federal culture agency, Mikhail Shvydkoi, formally reprimanded Piotrovsky, who has faced calls for his resignation over the lapses in security at the museum.
On Thursday, President Vladimir Putin ordered top officials, including the head of the KGB's successor agency, to confirm the whereabouts of 50 million artworks at Russian museums following the Hermitage thefts.
Only a quarter of the country's artworks have been inventoried since a check began six years ago, the first such survey since the waning years of the Soviet Union.