Rare Drawings Stolen From Archive

ICIFYakov Chernikhov
Drawings worth an estimated $1.3 million have been stolen from a Moscow archive, authorities said Tuesday.

The theft of at least 274 drawings by Constructivist artist and architect Yakov Chernikhov from the State Literature and Art Archive was announced just a week after it was revealed that some 220 artworks worth a total of $5 million had been stolen from the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

This latest robbery raised fresh concerns about security in the country's cash-starved museums and archives, and particularly about the problem of thefts by staff.

Archive director Tatyana Goryayeva said Tuesday that employees of the archive had evidently been involved in the disappearance of the drawings.

"Unfortunately, I have to state that employees of the archive were involved," she said on Rossia television. "Because the main task of the archivist is to ensure the safety of documents."

Sergei Stepashin, head of the Audit Chamber, called Tuesday for "a complete inventory of all state museums in our country," Interfax reported. Stepashin also said art auctions should be more tightly controlled.

Officials at the Federal Service for Media Law Compliance and Cultural Heritage, the state culture watchdog, became aware of the robbery at the archive when nine missing drawings were sold by Christie's auction house in London on June 22.

"We constantly monitor all the auctions, and at some point we discovered that artworks that should have been in our archives were being put up for sale," Yevgeny Strelchik, a spokesman for the cultural heritage service, said by telephone Tuesday.

Strelchik said the exact number of stolen drawings had not been determined, but that 274 of them, worth some $1.3 million, had already been located on the domestic and foreign antique market and would be returned to the archive.

Catherine Manson, a spokeswoman for Christie's Europe, confirmed that the drawings had been sold but "were never released to buyers because it was just at the time of the sale we heard about this issue and therefore canceled the sales immediately," she said by e-mail.

The architect's grandson, Andrei Chernikhov, told Itar-Tass Tuesday that he learned about the robbery when an acquaintance asked him to verify the origin of the nine drawings put up for auction at Christie's. Chernikhov said he demanded that Christie's withdraw the lots.

Christie's spokeswoman Manson said that "as soon as it became clear that there was a legitimate problem, we took the necessary steps to work with the authorities to establish the provenance and background to the works of art."

"Now that it has been established that the vendor did not in fact have title to sell these works, the sales have been canceled and the objects returned to Russia," Manson said.

Strelchik said his agency had informed the Prosecutor General's Office of the missing works. A spokeswoman for the Prosecutor General's Office said, however, that no investigation into the robbery had been opened Tuesday.

Police in St. Petersburg continue to search for the artworks stolen from the Hermitage. On Tuesday, two of the missing objects were left in a bag outside the local Federal Security Service office by an unidentified man.

In 2004, 2,577 artworks were stolen from Russia's museums and churches, The Associated Press reported Tuesday.

Boris Boyarskov, head of the state cultural heritage agency, said Monday that 50 to 100 thefts were reported each year in Russian museums. He also noted that inside jobs were on the rise.

In 2000, more than 300 masterpieces were reported stolen from the State Historical Museum and 180 objects disappeared from the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg.

Yakov Chernikhov was born in the city of Pavlograd, now located in Ukraine, in 1889. He graduated from the Odessa Art Institute in 1914 before moving to St. Petersburg -- then called Petrograd -- to study at the Imperial Academy of the Arts. He graduated from the academy's architecture department after the Revolution, in 1925.

Chernikhov authored a number of books on architecture and construction in the 1920s and 1930s. He moved to Moscow in 1936 to take up a teaching position at the Moscow Architecture Institute.

He lived in Moscow until his death in 1951, but his innovative designs were not appreciated during the Soviet years, and few buildings based on his designs were ever built.

Staff Writer Valeria Korchagina contributed to this report.