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Inventory of art ordered by Putin

16 stolen items recovered so far

MOSCOW -- President Vladimir Putin ordered top officials to conduct a nationwide inventory of 50 million artworks at Russian museums, concerned that other treasures may be missing after the theft of $5 million worth of valuables from the famed Hermitage.

Putin yesterday told Cabinet officials to set up a commission by Sept. 1 to conduct the inventory, the president's office said. Federal Security Service chief Nikolai Patrushev and Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev were among the officials tapped for the commission.

Russian authorities say only a quarter of the country's artworks have been inventoried since a check began six years ago, the first such survey since the closing years of the Soviet Union.

The July 31 announcement that $5 million worth of valuables -- including jewelry, religious icons, silverware, and richly enameled objects -- had been stolen from the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg said the thefts became known only after a routine inventory last fall.

Authorities so far have recovered 16 of the stolen items, including a gold-and-silver cross and two icons that police retrieved yesterday from a railway luggage office in St. Petersburg after a tip from an anonymous caller.

The announcement this week of the disappearance of a famous architect's drawings from the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art -- and charges that employees were to blame -- furthered concern that other cultural treasures at cash-strapped Russian institutions may also be missing.

Officials only realized that the late architect's drawings had disappeared when nine of them -- worth millions of dollars -- were sold in June at Christie's. The British auction house later canceled the sales.

Three suspects have been detained in the Hermitage robberies, including the son and husband of a late curator who had been in charge of the collection.

The curator's husband, Nikolai Zavadsky, has acknowledged that he and his late wife were involved in the theft of some of the items, his lawyer told the Associated Press. Defense lawyer Lyudmila Mikhailova said Zavadsky maintained that his wife had smuggled out only 53 items of lesser value since 1987 -- including spoons, sugar bowls, and small icons -- that he had then pawned.

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

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

About 50 to 100 thefts are registered each year in Russian museums, officials say. Although outright robberies are less frequent because of new security measures, inside jobs are increasing.

In 2000, more than 300 masterpieces were reported stolen from Moscow's State Historical Museum and 180 objects later disappeared from the armory collection of the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg.

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