Russia's cash-starved museums are plagued by staff thefts, a concern highlighted by the pilfering of 220 pieces of jewelry, silverware and other items worth a combined US$5 million from St. Petersburg's famed State Hermitage Museum, a culture official warned Monday.
Russian police have arrested three suspects over the crime, including the husband and son of a museum curator who had been in charge of the collection where the theft occurred until her death last October, news reports said Monday.
"The event in the Hermitage is not an isolated incident, but part of a pattern," said Boris Boyarskov, the head of the Culture Ministry's department in charge of protection of cultural values.
Russia's 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.
Boyarskov told reporters that 50-100 thefts were registered each year in Russian museums, and although blatant robberies were less frequent now because of new security measures, inside jobs were on the increase.
The official blamed this on "the betrayal by the elite of the museum community, the curators."
Among recent such crimes he listed the theft of more than 300 masterpieces from Moscow's State Historical Museum in 2000 and the later disappearance of 180 objects from the armory collection of Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg.
The head of Russia's federal culture agency, Mikhail Shvydkoi, said the Hermitage thefts showed the urgent need to invest in modernizing the security system at museums in Russia.
The Hermitage, which began in 1999 to enter onto an electronic catalog its collection of more than 2.8 million artworks, had only registered 153,000 so far, said Shvydkoi, adding at this rate it would take it another 70 years to complete the task.
He added that only 12.5 million out of the 50 million artworks in Russian museums had been inventoried over the past 6 years.
"All major museums today in Russia, both in Moscow and St. Petersburg, need a modern system for preserving their collections. And as long as this problem is not resolved, we will remain hostage to the human factor," he said.
The Hermitage said the curator in charge of most of the collection where the theft occurred died suddenly at her workplace when the inventory check began last October and that her colleagues had discovered the items were missing.
Shvydkoi blamed the "chronically underfunded" culture in Russia, which among other things kept museum staff salaries far too low.
The Hermitage, housed in the Russian czars' ornate Winter Palace along the Neva River, was started by Catherine the Great in 1764. Its vast holdings of antiquities, decorative art and Western art include world-renowned collections of Italian Renaissance, 17th-and 18th-century Dutch and Flemish, and impressionist paintings.