A sweeping government audit has revealed that up to 50,000 pieces are missing from Russia’s museums — everything from pre-Revolutionary medals and weapons to precious works of art — a member of the survey team said on Thursday.
Former Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered the survey after his government was deeply embarrassed in 2006 by hundreds of thefts from the crown jewel of Russia’s art world, St Petersburg’s Hermitage gallery.
More than 1,600 museums have been inspected since then and most of them have items missing, said Ilya Ryasnoi of Russia’s interior ministry.
The lost items were worth a total of “several million dollars,” he said, adding most of the disappeared inventory was pre-Revolutionary and Soviet-era medals, weapons and clothes.
Precious works of art were among the missing items but separate investigations were being conducted for those, Ryasnoi said.
“Yes, there have been thefts. Museum staff have used their contacts to steal some of the artifacts without a trace,” he said. “But most has simply been lost during transportation.”
Citing specific cases, Ryasnoi said 88 World War II medals had vanished from a museum in the Altai region, and weaponry had disappeared from a museum in the Siberian city of Novokuznetsk.
Almost 300 artifacts were missing from the Russian Museum of Ethnography in St Petersburg, he said.
So far authorities have opened 15 criminal cases of large-scale theft, which carries a maximum prison sentence of seven years, Ryasnoi said. More than 100 museum employees — including security guards and storage workers — have been charged with minor infractions.
However, Ryasnoi said the majority of the missing items had been mislaid or stolen during Soviet times, meaning many of those responsible may not face prosecution due to statutes of limitation.
The commission is to present its findings early next year. In the meantime it will continue auditing more 400 museums, including the State Historical Museum on Moscow’s Red Square, he said.
The commission, headed by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov, has a mandate to check around 80 million items in total, a difficult task given the state of Russian museum catalogues.
“Only two million of the artifacts are even photographed,” Ryasnoi said.
Furthermore, most Russian museums do not have computerized records, he said. Some items have handwritten descriptions logged in Soviet-era log books, but most just carry a single-line description, he said, making tracking them all but impossible.
Ryasnoi’s remarks came the same day that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited an art museum in Petrozavodsk, in northwestern Russia, which had recently computerized its inventory.
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