Thieves profit as heritage goes West

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Russia is losing its heritage by the crateload as criminal groups smuggle more and more art to the West, aided by chaotic policing and inadequate security at many of the country's museums, libraries and churches.

Millions of dollars worth of books, manuscripts, paintings, icons and other treasures have ended up in the hands of smugglers seeking to sell them abroad through a network of shops run by emigres in Britain, the United States, Italy, and Israel.

According to one of Russia's top crime-fighters, General Vasily Fedoschenko, of the Interior Ministry's criminal investigation division, art theft and smuggling is getting steadily worse. He said yesterday that more than 3,000 related offences were registered by police last year - a figure that is likely to represent only a fraction of the true number.

Law enforcement agencies appear to be fighting a losing battle, which is complicated by Russia's vast borders, and endemic official corruption. But there have been several successes. The general said that not long ago Russian detectives, working in tandem with Scotland Yard, removed four paintings from Sotheby's and Christies in London after concluding that they had been stolen from a museum in Sochi on the Black Sea. They were by renowned nineteenth century Russian artists Ivan Aivazovsky, Vasily Polenov, and Vasily Vereshchagin.

Russian customs notched up another coup last October in St Petersburg when they arrested a 56-year-old Russian man just before he boarded a flight to New York carrying suitcases loaded with art treasures worth tens of millions of dollars. These included a 330-year-old prayer book that belonged to Alexei Romanov, father of Peter the Great, a letter written by both the Tsar himself, another written by Catherine the Great, and contemporary portraits of Trotsky.

Although art smuggling is worse now than ever before, it is not new. From the 1970s, the KGB fought to contain what they called the "Antique Mafia", who toured the provinces stealing artefacts to smuggle abroad. Some criminals are prepared to go to exotic lengths: five years ago, police arrested a gang operating in the "Golden Ring" of cities around Moscow who had seized a large number of icons after drugging a church warden.

The loss of cultural treasures is deepening sentiments in post Cold War Russia that it is being plundered and exploited by the West, even though the smuggling business is run by home-grown gangs.

The authorities have imposed tight rules over the legal export of art. Buyers have to apply to a government committee for a licence for every artefact they want to take out of the country. These are often refused, especially in the case of pre-war art and almost all icons.

Among those who have unwittingly fallen foul of the system was the entertainer, Michael Jackson. When he performed in Moscow last year, he was given a ceremonial sabre by General Alexander Korzhakov, President Yeltsin's former chief bodyguard. Customs officials concluded it was an historic relic that could not leave the country. They sent it straight back to the general, much to his annoyance.