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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

State Has No Plan to Guard Works of Art

ST. PETERSBURG -- A top culture official said Monday that the government currently has no plan in place for securing the country's museums, which are hit by up to 100 robberies each year.

"On the whole, there is no government policy in the museum sector, and each of us is contributing to the formation of such a policy," said Boris Boyarskov, head of the Federal Service for Media Law Compliance and Cultural Heritage, Interfax reported.

Boyarskov made the comment during a two-day meeting of the Union of Russian Museums, which was called to address the issue of museum thefts.

President Vladimir Putin called last week for a complete inventory of the country's museums following the theft of $5 million in artwork from the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

At Monday's meeting, Mikhail Shvydkoi, head of the Federal Culture and Cinematography Agency, responded by proposing the creation of a complete electronic catalog of the holdings of Russia's museums.

Shvydkoi said a complete inventory "would allow us above all to establish the actual state of affairs and to dispel the utterly ridiculous idea that all museum directors and staff members are thieves," Interfax reported.

Museum employees have been implicated in the Hermitage robbery as well as the theft of rare drawings by architect and artist Yakov Chernikhov from Moscow's State Literature and Art Archive, which was made public last week. The drawings are valued at no less than $1.3 million.

The nationwide inventory should be conducted "at an extremely high speed" and completed within a maximum of 30 years, Shvydkoi said.

Shvydkoi rejected calls for Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky's resignation in the wake of the theft. "I'm always reading that everyone should resign, both I and Piotrovsky," he said. "In that case, I would say that everyone in the country should resign, starting with the local building supervisor."

Piotrovsky nevertheless offered an apology at Monday's meeting, which was attended by representatives from about 50 of the country's largest museums, Interfax reported.

Piotrovsky has come under attack since the robbery was announced two weeks ago. Criticism has focused on the museum's lax security and the scale of the robbery, which seems to have been carried out over a number of years.

The Hermitage began building an electronic catalog of the more than 2.8 million artworks in its collection back in 1999. To date, just 153,000 items have been registered. Shvydkoi said last week that, at this rate, the inventory would take another 70 years to finish.

Moscow antiques collector Vladimir Studenikin lashed out at the Hermitage management Saturday in an interview broadcast on NTV television.

"If anything this extraordinary had happened in the past, either before the Revolution or in the Soviet era, the director whose institution found itself in such a shameful situation would have shot himself or hung himself with his scarf," Studenikin said, in an apparent reference to Piotrovsky's penchant for wearing scarves in all weather.

Studenikin purchased a 19th-century silver chalice from St. Petersburg antiques dealer Maxim Shepel without knowing that it had been stolen from the Hermitage. He has returned the chalice to the authorities.

Shepel, one of four suspects arrested in connection with the Hermitage robbery, has been undergoing treatment in a psychiatric ward at the city's Gaaza regional hospital since Aug. 10.

Shepel's lawyer, Andrei Pavlov, said Monday that he had not been able to visit his client at the hospital, due to restrictions imposed by the medical staff.

"Shepel's mental condition is critical, but neither I nor the investigators have been allowed into the ward," Pavlov said.

Shepel is reported to have suffered a mental breakdown after his arrest.

On Monday, four of the stolen items stolen from the Hermitage were left at a St. Petersburg police station. The police department dealing with antiques received an anonymous tip about the items. The four items are valued at some $20,000.