Two arrested over Hermitage theft

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Two men suspected of spiriting a treasure trove of Russian artefacts out of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg with insider help over a period of six years have been arrested.

Russian media have named them as the husband and son of a dead Hermitage curator, and are suggesting that the crime was "a family affair".

The 221 items that disappeared from the museum's repositoryincluded dozens of precious icons, gold and silver 18th- and 19th-century jewellery (some crafted by the House of Fabergé), elaborate clocks, gem-studded chalices and crosses, as well as expensive household items such as salt cellars and a caviar scoop. Some of the artefacts were reportedly gifts to Tsar Nicholas II, Russia's last imperial ruler. The official estimate of the items' worth was $5m (£2.7m), but art historians put their value at some $100m (£50m).

The Hermitage's director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, was quick to say he suspected that the museum's employees were implicated, calling the crime "a stab in the back". That theory gained credence yesterday when the media reported that the suspects being held were the husband and son of a dead Hermitage curator, Larisa Zavadskaya.

The son, Nikolai, aged 25, worked at the museum himself, but resigned two years ago, apparently citing "low pay", while the husband, also called Nikolai, is a history professor. The police were still questioning the men yesterday and have until today to press charges.

Zavadskaya, one of just a handful of people with access to the repository where most of the missing items were held, reportedly died of a heart attack in October last year, when the Hermitage began the inventory that led to the discovery that the museum had been robbed.

Police sources say the two men have admitted that they stole from the Hermitage over a six-year period, and that more than 100 pawn tickets were founded in the husband's flat.

Several of the items have already been recovered - an anonymous telephone call led police to a dustbin in St Petersburg where they found a sapphire and emerald-studded icon, one of the most valuable missing objects. A Moscow art dealer has handed over a 19th-century gold and silver chalice bought in good faith in 2004, and the Hermitage Museum has posted a full list of the missing items on its website.

It was testimony from the Moscow art dealer that apparently led to the arrest of the two suspects, and police sources say the men have helped them to establish the fate of a further 70 objects.

The Hermitage issued a statement yesterday that sounded like a mea culpa, admitting that its security and working practices "do not meet modern demands, exploit modern technology, or take sufficient account of the human factor". The museum added that the theft would force it to "sharply" step up supervision of its curators, to radically change the frequency and methodology of its inventories, to severely limit access to its repositories for its own employees, and to curb the number of exhibitions it holds.

Its magnificent collection was started by Empress Catherine the Great in 1764, and is housed in the Winter Palace. But its sheer size appears to be its weakness; the museum possesses over three million objects, stored in more than 1,000 rooms. Only 60,000 can be displayed at one time, meaning that most of the objects are stored in repositories, whose contents have been checked every few years.

The museum's curators make only about 5,000 roubles (£100) a month, while the market for antiques is booming.