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Hermitage to limit the number of exhibits following art thefts

The leading role in this unique architectural ensemble is played by the Winter Palace, the residence of the Russian tsars that was built to the design of Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli in 1754-62. This ensemble, formed in the 18th and 19th centuries, is extended by the eastern wing of the General Staff building, the Menshikov Palace and the recently constructed Repository. The State Hermitage Museum plans to limit the number of exhibits as part of plans to increase security following the theft of 221 Russian works of art. “We are going to take a hard look at the number of exhibits we do and the list will be shortened,” the museum's director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, told a press conference in St. Petersburg. “Security is now a top priority.” The Hermitage said on July 31 that art works, including 19th-century Orthodox icons and works by Faberge, had been stolen over several years with the help of staff. The museum will now mount fewer exhibitions and reduce the number of works.

“Among measures to improve security, Piotrovsky said most important is improving the status and salaries of museum workers, “so that they will be motivated to do their job.” Professional staffers earn between $2,400 and $3,600 a year. Last week, Anatoly Vilkov, deputy director of Rosokhran Kultura, a Culture Ministry watchdog, criticized Russian museums for devoting too much time and resources to organizing exhibits at the expense of maintaining proper inventory and security. Piotrovsky announced plans to complete an electronic catalog, “so that every item will be included and not just some important pieces.” Since 1999, the Hermitage has digitalized only 5% of its approximate 2.9 million items. The director said the most valuable stolen item, an icon, the Assembly of the Saints, 1893, was anonymously returned to police last week. Among works still missing are Orthodox ritual gold and jeweled crosses and chalices; 19th-century silver tableware; and a few dozen enamel pieces. The last major theft at the Hermitage was in March 2001 when a visitor took Jean-Leon Gerome's 1876 canvas, “Pool in a Harem,” off the wall and walked out of the museum. That painting hasn't been recovered. When Mikhail Piotrovsky was awarded one of the most prestigious awards in the world, the Order of the Legion of Honor, someone asked him how he would wear it. Without thinking twice, the Director of the Hermitage said, apparently without a touch of humor, "honorably."

Everything that is happening in the Hermitage these days is very closely linked with the antithesis of honor and dishonor. The reputation of Russia's main museum and symbol of the country's statehood has been sullied. People in the uniforms of the police and court investigators are carrying out their scrupulous and low-key work while items that had disappeared from the museum collections are anonymously deposited in front of the local offices of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and FSB. An unbelievably cheeky and primitive theft has burst into the lives of the museum community. And naturally it has had much broader resonance, as reports on the "Hermitage crime" have appeared in the federal news shows day after day, even pushing aside coverage of the Israeli-Lebanese conflict.” (hermitagemuseum.org, Bloomberg)