PRAGUE, August 7, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- It has all the elements of a classic mystery novel.
Hundreds of icons and precious objects worth an estimated $5 million are systematically stolen from Russia's most storied art museum, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.
The majority of the items, it becomes clear, were taken from a single storeroom -- whose guardian, a curator identified as Larisa Zavadskaya, died suddenly late last year.
Museum officials bring in investigators, suggesting the heist is an inside job.
Those suspicions gains credence when the first two arrests in the case, made this weekend, are Zavadskaya's husband and son. A third person has since been reported arrested as well.
Museum Director Mikhail Piotrovsky has called the theft "a stab in the back."
History Of Art Theft
It isn't the first time such a crime has been committed. Russian museum workers are notoriously underpaid, and museum security admittedly lax.
But in a press conference today in Moscow, federal cultural officials sought to lay blame with museum officials and their lackadaisical approach to record-keeping.
"The great majority of thefts from museums are from storage."
Boris Boyarskov, the director of Rosokhrankultura, the federal service for the protection of Russia's cultural heritage, said that keeping track of the Hermitage's material and cultural valuables is a problem that has existed for a long time.
"This could be seen as early as 1993, in inventories that were done by what was then the Culture Ministry. A number of subsequent checks offer the same conclusion -- museum authorities were conducting very incomplete inventories," Boyarskov said. "In recent checks we conducted together with the federal cultural agency [Roskultura], we became convinced that the inventory records are a mess."
Frequent inventories are key to museum security, says Julian Radcliffe, chairman of the Art Loss Register, a private international firm specializing in tracking stolen art and antiques.
Radcliffe says the Hermitage theft bears all the trademarks of a standard museum theft: nearly all of the 221 items were in storage, none were insured, and the records keeping track of them were sloppy at best:
"The great majority of thefts from museums are from storage. The ones that are given the great headlines are the thefts of major items which are on public display, but the much bigger and constant problem is theft from items in storage where they can only undertake a stock check once every three or four year because of the volume of items," Radcliffe says.
Speaking from London, Radcliffe says large British museums like the Victoria and Albert -- which, like the Hermitage, has close to 3 million items -- are lucky to be able to take stock of their collection every three or four years.
Police in St. Petersburg have suggested that it may have been 30 years since some of the stolen items were checked. They also said that only 19 of the items were in the care of curators who were still alive.
Radcliffe says clean records and external auditors are key to keeping a collection secure, particularly in a museum like the Hermitage that has 2,500 employees -- who may not always have the museum's best interests at heart.
"The other necessity is to make certain that the staff of the museum are well-motivated and security is good in relation to your own staff as well as to the public who are viewing," Radcliffe says. "The great problem for museums has been theft by curators or contractors. And for many years, a lot of those thefts were never reported, because the curator couldn't work out which of his staff was dishonest and just didn't want to rock the confidence of his directors, potential donors, and the public, by admitting that he had staff that were corrupt."
Boyarskov of Rosokhrankultura says between 50 and 100 thefts are registered each year in Russian museums, many of them inside jobs.
Such recent crimes include the theft of more than 300 works from Moscow's State Historical Museum, and the disappearance of nearly 200 objects from the armory of St. Petersburg's Peter and Paul Fortress.
The Hermitage has posted a detailed list of the missing items on its website (http://www.hermitagemuseum.org). Several objects have been returned to the museum in recent days, although it is unclear if they are among the stolen works.
Radcliffe says it's unlikely the Hermitage will see many of the objects ever again:
"The recovery ratio for expensive, good paintings is probably 15 percent. But for smaller, decorative art objects like these [taken from the Hermitage], I'm afraid the usual recovery ratio is much lower," Radcliffe says.
(RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report.)