President Vladimir Putin on Thursday ordered top officials, including the head of the KGB's successor agency, to confirm the whereabouts of 50 million artworks at Russian museums following the theft of US$5 million worth of valuables from the famed Hermitage.
Putin's order followed the announcement that 221 precious items, including jewelry, religious icons, silverware and richly enameled objects, had been stolen from the Hermitage -- a theft that came to light only after a routine inventory last fall.
The husband of a late curator of the Hermitage confessed that he and his wife had been involved in some of the thefts from the world-famous museum in Russia's former imperial capital.
The husband's lawyer said her client told her that the pilfering began in the Soviet era and continued for almost two decades.
The announcement earlier this week of the disappearance of a famous late architect's drawings from a Russian state archive -- and charges that employees were to blame -- have furthered concern that other cultural treasures at cash-strapped Russian institutions may also be missing.
Officials at the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art only realized the drawings had disappeared when nine of them were sold in June at Christie's.
The British auction house later canceled the sales.
Putin told Cabinet officials to set up a commission by Sept. 1 to inventory museum exhibits nationwide, 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 that only a quarter of the 50 million artworks in Russia's museums have been inventoried since a nationwide check began six years ago, the first such inventory since the closing years of the Soviet Union.
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 thieving, Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky said that pay for museum curators could be increased.
Piotrovsky, who has rejected calls for him to resign, also announced that the museum would spend US$5.5 million next year on security, including electronic monitoring of staff entering and leaving the collections, news reports said.
Three suspects have been detained, including the son and husband of a late curator, Larisa Zavadskaya, who had been in charge of the collection.
Authorities so far have recovered 16 of the stolen items, including a gold-and-silver cross and two icons which police retrieved on Thursday from a railway luggage office in St. Petersburg after a tip from an anonymous caller.
The curator's husband, Nikolai Zavadsky, has admitted that he and his late wife were involved in the theft of some of the items, his lawyer told reporters.
Defense lawyer Lyudmila Mikhailova said that Zavadsky maintained that his wife had smuggled only 53 items of lesser value since 1987 -- including spoons, sugar bowls and small icons -- which he had then pawned.
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, officials say.