Curator tried to sell items, police say

Published August 13, 2006

MOSCOW - A senior Russian police officer said Saturday that a late curator, who has been the focus of an investigation into the theft of art from the State Hermitage Museum, had offered to sell some of the stolen items to an antiques dealer.

Russia's most famous museum announced last month that 221 items worth $5-million, including jewelry, religious icons, silverware and richly enameled objects, had been stolen. The museum, on the banks of the Neva River in St. Petersburg, Russia, was the former Winter Palace of the czars.

The thefts highlighted lax security and antiquated recordkeeping at Russian institutions and underscored the funding crisis that has plagued museums and archives since the 1991 Soviet collapse.

Larisa Zavadskaya, the curator in charge of the Russian art collection where the thefts occurred, died suddenly when a routine inventory check began last year. Last week, police detained four suspects, including Zavadskaya's husband and their son, and charged them in the thefts.

Zavadskaya's husband confessed that he and his wife were involved in some of the thefts, his lawyer said.

Authorities have recovered 17 of the items stolen from the Hermitage, most recently a gilded silver cross dating from 1760 that a couple of St. Petersburg antiques dealers returned to police Saturday.

The dealers told investigators the curator repeatedly visited their shop to offer some of the items they later recognized from pictures of stolen objects released by the Hermitage, said Vladislav Kirillov, a senior police officer in charge of the investigation.

One of the dealers, Alexander Ponomarev, said Zavadskaya did all the bargaining, claiming she was selling the objects belonging to her friends who had been in a car accident and needed money for treatment.

Kirillov said Zavadskaya's husband sold the cross for 20,000 rubles, or $750 - less than one-tenth its worth.

Russian media said Zavadskaya, an art scholar widely respected by her colleagues, lived in a ramshackle apartment in St. Petersburg.

Amid suggestions that low salaries for staff were partly to blame for the theft, Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky said pay for museum curators could be increased. He also announced the museum would spend $5.5-million next year on security, including electronic monitoring of staff entering and leaving the collections.

On Thursday, President Vladimir Putin ordered top officials, including the head of the KGB's successor agency, to confirm the whereabouts of 50-million artworks at Russian museums.

Only a quarter of the country's artworks have been inventoried since a check began six years ago, the first such survey since the waning years of the Soviet Union.