$5 Million Theft at Hermitage Museum

APA cat, part of the Hermitage's security system, stretching in the Pavilion Hall.
The State Hermitage Museum on Monday reported the theft of more than 220 items, including jewelry and enameled objects, worth around $5 million, an incident that highlights persistently poor security at Russian museums.

The St. Petersburg museum said the thefts were likely carried out with the involvement of museum staff. The museum gave few other details, saying only that officials learned of the missing items during a routine inventory check.

The museum said the curator in charge of most of the collection where the theft occurred died suddenly at his workplace when the inventory check began and that his colleagues had discovered the items were missing. The museum did not identify the curator or say when or how he died.

"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," a museum statement said.

The museum also said it was trying to modernize its system for monitoring visitors and employees, but 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, with museum employees often, for example, forced to open windows for fresh air.

The Hermitage's vast collection, which includes antiquities, decorative art and Western art, including world-renowned collections of Impressionist and Flemish paintings, was started by Catherine the Great in 1764.

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," Boris Boryaskov said, RIA-Novosti reported.

"All this shows the poor protection of our national cultural heritage," he said.

The agency will send investigators to the Hermitage on Wednesday to check its security measures.

State funding for culture dried up after the 1991 Soviet collapse, and cultural institutions have been plagued by chronic money woes, with frequent reports of theft.

In 2001, the 19th-century French painting "Pool in a Harem" by Jean-Leon Jerome was sliced out of its frame and stolen from the walls of the Hermitage.

Five years earlier, customs officials in St. Petersburg detained a Russian tourist heading to New York with three suitcases packed with antique books, documents signed by Peter the Great and other tsars, and rare drawings and postage stamps. Some of the books had stamps of the "Imperial Hermitage Library," and the entire lot was estimated to be worth millions of dollars.

That same year, a former army officer pilfered 200 leather-bound volumes, some dating back centuries, and worth as much as $2 million, from Moscow's State Public Historical Library.