Russia Struggles to Stem Art Thefts

Last week, Russian officials announced that drawings worth millions of dollars had disappeared from a state archive. They confirmed that, over the past several years, hundreds of artifacts had been stolen from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

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Russia's president has ordered a check of 50 million works of art in his country after some came up missing. Last Tuesday, officials said drawings worth millions of dollars had disappeared from a state archive. Only the week before it was announced that hundreds of artifacts had disappeared from one of Russia's most important museums.

We get the story from NPR's Gregory Feifer in Moscow.

GREGORY FEIFER reporting:

When officials at St. Petersburg Hermitage Museum announced that items worth $5 million were missing, the news sent shockwave through the museum community. At Moscow's premier museum, the Tretyakov, head curator Ekaterina Sillisniova(ph) says that thefts exposed an abysmal state of security in the country's museums, many of which lack rudimentary alarm systems.

Ms. EKATERINA SILLISNIOVA (Curator, Tretyakov Gallery): (Through translator) Even the Hermitage doesn't have photographs of all its stolen items, and the Hermitage is a far cry from the terrible situation in the provinces. We need to help museums get the basic technology they need, like video cameras, as soon as possible.

FEIFER: The Hermitage holds one of the world's great art collections. When officials discovered that 220 artifacts had been stolen, suspicion fell on one of the few curators with access to the sight. Boris Boyarskov, head of the state cultural heritage watchdog, says the Hermitage's lost represents a betrayal by the elite of the museum community - the curators.

Mr. BORIS BOYARSKOV (Head, State Cultural Heritage Agency): (Through translator) I have to say that for us in the agency this event at the Hermitage is not an isolated theft, but something that was inevitable.

FEIFER: The Hermitage curator died under mysterious circumstances last October at the beginning of a museum inventory that exposed the thefts. Local media reported she suffered a heart attack. Police found hundreds of pawn tickets in her apartment. Her husband and son allegedly confessed to helping steal museum pieces over a period of six years. Some believed there's something fishy about the whole affair. Former state auditor Yuri Boldyrev says the Hermitage theft exposed the crony system that enables theft to thrive.

Mr. YURI BOLDYREV (Former State Auditor, Russia): (Through translator) No one curator can steal so many items over such a long period without the approval of top management. Perhaps what's happening now is a cover up to blame the thefts on a dead curator.

FEIFER: But officials defend the country's museum system, saying thefts take place all over the world. Mikhail Shvydkoi, head of the state culture agency, says in Russia, it's the lack of money that makes thievery inevitable.

Mr. MIKHAIL SHVYDKOI (Head, State Culture Agency, Russia): (Through translator) This is the misfortune of the 1990s - with inadequate funding of museums, employees working without salaries, or on meager salaries, and needing to earn money.

FEIFER: In the latest theft, authorities say hundreds of drawings by avant-garde Architect Iakov Chernikhov were taken from Moscow's State and Literature Archive. Officials made the discovery in June after some of Chernikhov's missing work, worth millions of dollars, was sold at auction in London.

Museum officials say the government needs to act immediately to stop future thefts. Only a quarter of the country's estimated 50 million art works has been inventoried recently. The Hermitage began cataloging its own collection on computer seven years ago. At the current rate, it will take another 70 years.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.

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