Putin Orders Museum Inventory

President Vladimir Putin on Thursday ordered the government to conduct an inventory check of all the nation's museums following the theft of $5 million in artwork from the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

Putin told Cabinet officials to set up a commission by Sept. 1 that would prepare and conduct an inventory of all cultural treasures stored in Russian museums, the presidential administration announced. The panel will include government officials and law enforcement agency representatives.

Putin's move follows the theft of 221 precious items, including jewelry, religious icons, silverware and richly enameled objects, from the Hermitage that reportedly took place over a period of several years and only came to light after a routine inventory began last fall.

Hermitage officials announced the theft on July 31. Three suspects have been arrested in connection with the crime, including the son and husband of a late curator who had been in charge of the collection. Larisa Zavadskaya died at her workplace soon after the inventory check began last October.

Authorities so far have recovered 13 of the stolen items.

The curator's husband, Nikolai Zavadsky, has admitted that he and his late wife were involved in the theft of some of the items, his lawyer said.

Defense lawyer Lyudmila Mikhailova said Zavadsky maintained that his wife had smuggled only 53 items of lesser value since 1987 -- including spoons, sugar bowls and small icons -- which he subsequently pawned.

Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky said Thursday that he did not rule out that the list of suspects might widen, news reports said.

Piotrovsky also said the museum would spend 150 million rubles ($5.5 million) next year on security, including electronic monitoring of staff entering and leaving the museum collections. Staff salaries could also be increased, he said.