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Russian Museum Thefts Raise Security Concerns

The discovery of thefts at two major Russian cultural institutions has raised concerns about how secure art treasures are in the country. Officials say poor financing is partly to blame for a growing number of crimes that officials say often are inside jobs, involving museum employees.

It sounds like something out of a detective novel: an Orthodox icon covered in jewels is recovered in a garbage bin, after an anonymous call to police.

A valuable chalice is turned in by an antiques dealer, who realizes it has been stolen from Russia's famed Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

Both objects are among more than 220 priceless items discovered missing from the Hermitage during a routine check, after the sudden death of a curator late last year.

Now, the curator's son and husband have been arrested for allegedly removing valuables from the museum's vaults over a long period of time.

The same day the Hermitage arrests were announced, the top item on the evening news was the disappearance of drawings made by famous Russian architect Yakov Chernikov from a state archive.

Chernikov died in 1951, and was known for his unusual building designs of the avant-garde and constructivist movements.

The architect's grandson, Andrei Chernikov, says a colleague asked him to authenticate drawings that were about to be sold by Christie's auction house in London.

When he saw photographs of them on the Internet, he knew they had been taken from the archive.

As in the Hermitage case, officials say some of the missing drawings have been recovered. But an undetermined number, probably more than one-thousand, remain unaccounted for.

Cultural officials say the recent cases are not isolated, and that between 50 and 100 thefts are reported from museums around the country each year.

Most are blamed on a severe shortage of funding since the collapse of the Soviet Union 15 years ago.

Officials say an increasing number of thefts are committed by museum staff, due to poor salaries and the lack of modernized systems to inventory collections.

Museums often have only paper lists of items in their collections, with no photographs or other means to identify them.

The Hermitage case illustrates the issue. One of the world's leading art museums, the former royal palace has around three million items in a collection that was started by Empress Catherine the Great in 1764.

Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky says there have been many cases in which stolen items are returned. But he adds that it is difficult to identify them, because there is no electronic inventory system.

Piotrovsky says older museum storage vaults are not well equipped, and that a new sophisticated storage facility is now being built.

This may be a step in the right direction, but the head of Russia's federal culture agency, Mikhail Shvydkoi, points to the size of the task in Russia as a whole.

Shvydkoi says, just a small fraction of the 50 million objects in the country's museums are properly inventoried, a sign of the urgent need to modernize the way institutions keep track of their holdings.

He calls the thefts a tragedy, a crisis for Russia's museums, libraries and other institutions, where the country's historical collections are housed.

After the disclosure of the recent thefts, President Vladimir Putin established a commission to conduct a thorough inventory of all cultural treasures in Russian institutions.

More arrests have been made in the Hermitage case, including a university professor, who police suspect was involved in the sale of the stolen objects.

Inside the great St. Petersburg museum, throngs of visitors make their way through hundreds of rooms to admire the art in its majestic setting at the peak of the summer season.

One would never notice anything was amiss. But as with many museums, there are far fewer objects on display than in storage.

And it is there that cultural officials now focus their attention, as Russia searches for a better way to preserve its artistic heritage.