Millions of Dollars Worth of Drawings Stolen From Russia’s State Archive

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The New York Sun

MOSCOW — Concern over the security of Russia’s museum collections mounted after officials disclosed yet another theft — the disappearance of a famous late architect’s drawings, worth millions of dollars, from a Russian state archive.

The crime, blamed by the archive’s director on unscrupulous staff, came just over a week after Russia’s most famous museum — the Hermitage — announced the theft over a period of years of more than 220 artworks valued at $5 million.

The incidents have illuminated the lax security and appallingly poor record keeping at Russian cultural institutions, as well as the funding crisis that has plagued museums and archives since the 1991 Soviet collapse.

Russia’s cultural heritage body said yesterday that drawings by late architect Yakov Chernikhov, widely admired for his Soviet-era avant-garde and abstract or geometric designs, disappeared from the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art.

The agency, Rosokhrankultura, said it did not know exactly how many drawings had been stolen but that 274 of them, worth an estimated $1.3 million, had been recovered on the Russian antiques market and abroad.

The archive’s director, Tatyana Goryayeva, said some of her staff were certainly involved.

“Unfortunately, I have to state the fact it could not have happened without the participation of the workers of the archive,” she said in televised comments.

No one has been arrested in the archive case.

Rosokhrankultura said it became aware of the Chernikhov thefts after nine missing drawings were sold by Christie’s auction house on June 22.

Chernikhov’s grandson, Andrei, said the major part of the architect’s estate, which was donated to the state archive after his 1951 death and includes some 2,000 drawings, had gone missing. He said he learned of the theft after an acquaintance asked him to verify the history of the nine drawings on sale at Christie’s. ITAR-Tass quoted him as saying he asked auctioneers to withdraw the lots.

Christie’s said it had gone ahead with the auction because the drawings were authentic but later canceled the sales when the artwork’s provenance, or the history of their ownership, was proved to be incorrect.

“Now that it has been established that the vendor did not in fact have title to sell these works, the sales have been canceled, and the objects returned to Russia,” the auction house said in a statement.

At the ornate St. Petersburg institution that once was the Russian tsars’ Winter Palace, the Hermitage, museum officials said the theft of the items, which included jewelry, religious icons, and richly enameled objects, took place over several years.

Three suspects have been detained regarding the theft, including the son and husband of a late curator who had been in charge of the collection. She died at her workplace shortly after a routine inventory check began last October.

The head of Russia’s federal culture agency, Mikhail Shvydkoi, said the antiquated museum cataloging systems needed urgent modernizing and complained that staff salaries are too low.

Just a quarter of the nation’s estimated 50 million artworks have been inventoried recently, and only a fraction have been entered onto an electronic catalog. Curators often keep inventory records by hand, writing them in notebooks and storing them in folders tied with string.

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.

The New York Sun

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