- The Washington Times - Monday, July 31, 2006

MOSCOW — Russia’s famed State Hermitage Museum yesterday reported the theft of more than 220 works, including jewelry and enameled objects, worth around $5 million, an incident that highlighted the poor security at Russian cultural institutions.

The Hermitage — housed in the ornate Winter Palace of the Russian czars in St. Petersburg, overlooking the Neva River — said museum employees were likely involved in the thefts.

In a statement, the museum said staff members learned of the missing items during a routine inventory check. When the check started, the curator in charge of most of the collection where the theft occurred died suddenly at his workplace, the statement said. The museum did not identify the curator or say when or how he died. It also did not identify specific items that were stolen.

“There are many strange aspects of this affair but, unfortunately, there is no doubt that it did not happen without the participation of museum staff,” the statement said.

The museum also said it was trying to modernize its system for monitoring visitors and employees, and acknowledged that most of the premises were not fully secured. Many of the building’s more than 1,000 rooms have inadequate ventilation and security systems; museum employees, for example, often have to open windows for fresh air.

The Hermitage was started by Catherine the Great in 1764. Today, its vast holdings of antiquities, decorative art and Western art include world-renowned collections of Italian Renaissance, 17th- and 18th-century Dutch and Flemish, and Impressionist paintings.

The head of the federal agency in charge of preserving Russia’s cultural heritage said the theft was another sign of the inadequate security at museums and other cultural institutions.

“The Hermitage theft unfortunately is not the first such occurrence when objects or documents disappear from archives or museums representing our country’s birth,” Rosonkhrankultura chief Boris Boryaskov was quoted as saying by the RIA-Novosti news agency.

Russian government funding for culture dried up after the 1991 Soviet collapse. Cultural institutions have been beset by chronic money woes, with frequent reports of theft — including at the Hermitage.

In 2001, the 19th-century French painting “Pool in a Harem,” by Jean-Leon Jerome, was cut out of its frame and stolen off the wall at the Hermitage.

In 1996, customs officials in St. Petersburg detained a Russian tourist heading to New York with three suitcases full of antique books, documents signed by Peter the Great and other Russian czars, and rare drawings and postage stamps.

Some of the books were marked as belonging to the “Imperial Hermitage Library,” and the entire haul had an estimated value of millions of dollars.

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