Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Treasured Paintings Stolen in Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG -- The St. Petersburg Academy of Arts, founded in 1757, is a majestic building overlooking the Neva River and has a museum with an extensive collection of paintings, sketches and the diploma works of the academy's most famous students and graduates.

Sometime between 11 p.m. Saturday and 8 p.m. Sunday, however, this collection was reduced by 16 paintings, which were stolen by people who sneaked into the museum, located on the academy's second floor.

Nikolai Ivanov, head of the city's art theft police task force, which is investigating the robbery, said several thieves probably broke into the museum, cut the paintings out of their frames, and escaped, most likely through a second-floor window.

The stolen paintings, which date from the 19th century, include Ilya Repin's "Model" (1867) and "The Angel of Death Exterminating the Pharaoh's First-born" (1865); Ivan Shishkin's "The Park at Mordvinov's Dacha (Oaks in Old Peterhof)" (1891); Konstantin Savitsky's "Golgotha" (1869); Ivan Khrutsky's "Still Life" (1839), as well as works by Vasily Tropinin, Alexander Varnek, Vasily Shebuyev, Ivan Kramskoi and others.

Ivanov said the alarm system at the museum was not effective enough to prevent the burglars - a problem also cited when two paintings by Vasily Perov were stolen from the Russian Museum in April.

Most cultural organizations with valuable art work on the premises are unable to afford the kind of high-tech security that would keep thieves at bay, making poor security the most common reason mentioned by police when investigating a crime of this nature.

Strangely, however, Vasilyevsky district police received an alarm signal from the Academy of Arts' museum at 11 p.m. Saturday and appeared at the scene immediately. But there was no one at the academy to let the police in, and the detachment left, Ivanov said.

An official from the museum's administration was informed of the alarm but failed to react, saying the alarm "occasionally" went off. Ivanov was unable to comment on whether or not this made the official legally culpable because, he said, the terms of her contract may not hold her responsible for following up alarm calls.

Ivanov said that three main versions are now under consideration. While he did not elaborate, Ivanov said police had not ruled out that current or former museum officials were involved in the theft.

The investigator said he was unable to say Monday evening how much the paintings were worth since experts were still working on the case and would put a figure on the heist Tuesday morning.

According to museum director Yekaterina Grishina, some of the works are undoubted rarities - the Tropinin and Khrutsky paintings, for instance.

A local art professor and expert who asked not to be identified said the cost of the paintings could range from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars.

"As little as four years ago, Shishkin and Ivan Aivazovsky were most in demand at Russian auctions," the expert said.

She also linked the April art theft at the Russian Museum to the current crime, as well as the attempted theft of paintings by Ilya Repin from Penaty Museum in Repino this July.

"In my opinion, it has all been arranged by some private Russian collector interested in this particular period [the 19th century]. The man has a list of pictures and is ordering the thefts," the expert said.

Vasily Perov, Ilya Repin, Ivan Kramskoi and Ivan Shishkin were all Realist artists and belonged to the Peredvizhniki movement, which existed between 1870 and 1923, so-called for their practice of moving exhibitions from place to place.

Ivanov refused to comment on a potential link, saying that none of the crimes has been solved, making it impossible to draw conclusions.

The number of art crimes in St. Petersburg has been on the increase. There were 55 such incidents in 1998, as opposed to 18 in 1992, according to figures released at an anti-art theft conference held earlier this year.

Correspondingly, however, the number of solved cases has also risen, from 22.8 percent in 1994 to 41.7 percent in 1998 - a success rate widely accredited to the creation of "Department 12," Ivanov's art task force.

Anyone who witnessed the crime at the Academy of Arts, or who has any information relating to the theft, can telephone (812) 278-34-02.