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Prized drawings stolen from Russian archives

Some 274 works by Chernikhov, worth $1.3 million, have been recovered on open market.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Drawings by a famous architect worth millions of dollars have been stolen from a state archive, officials said Tuesday, raising fresh concerns about the security of Russia’s museum collections after a major theft at the famed State Hermitage.

Drawings by the late architect Yakov Chernikhov, widely admired for his avant-garde and constructivist designs, disappeared from the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art, according to Russia’s cultural heritage body, Rosokhrankultura.

The agency said it did not know exactly how many drawings had been stolen but that 274 of them — worth an estimated $1.3 million — had been recovered on the Russian antiques market and abroad.

The announcement came just over a week after Russia’s State Hermitage museum revealed that had been stolen. Three suspects were detained in connection with the crime, including the son and husband of a late Hermitage curator who had been in charge of the collection when the theft occurred.

The Hermitage, started by Catherine the Great in 1764, has vast holdings of antiquities, decorative art and Western art that include world-renowned collections of Italian Renaissance paintings and 17th- and 18th-century Dutch and Flemish paintings as well as impressionist works.

Rosokhrankultura said it became aware of the Chernikhov thefts after nine missing drawings were sold at auction by auction house Christie’s on June 22.

Cultural officials warned that staff thefts at Russia’s cash-strapped museums were a major problem, blaming chronic money woes since state funding for culture dried up after the 1991 Soviet collapse.

The head of Russia’s federal culture agency, Mikhail Shvydkoi, said the Hermitage thefts showed an urgent need to modernize museum cataloging systems and complained that staff salaries are too low.

Tracking inventories and securing collections at most Russian museums remains antiquated. Curators often keep inventory records by hand, writing them out in notebooks.

Few artworks trackedJust a quarter of the nation’s estimated 50 million artworks have been inventoried recently and only a fraction entered onto an electronic catalog.

About 50 to 100 thefts are registered each year in Russian museums. Although outright robberies are less frequent because of new security measures, inside jobs are increasing.

In 2000, more than 300 masterpieces were reported stolen from Moscow’s State Historical Museum and 180 objects disappeared from the armory collection of the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg.

Rosokhrankultura said the Chernikhov drawings were of geometric and architectural fantasies.

The architect, who died in 1951, was noted for his 1933 book “101 Architectural Fantasies.” However, his adventurous designs were poorly regarded by Soviet authorities and few of his buildings were constructed.

Chernikhov’s grandson, Andrei, said the major part of the architect’s estate — which was donated to the state archive in the 1950s and includes some 2,000 drawings — had gone missing.

He said he learned of the theft after an acquaintance asked him to verify the history of the nine drawings on auction at Christie’s. Despite asking the auctioneers to withdraw the lots, the sales went ahead, the ITAR-Tass news agency quoted him as saying.

“I saw the drawings I knew by heart which should have been stored at the archive,” he said.

Christie’s said it had canceled the sales as soon as it was proven that there was a problem with their provenance.

“Now that it has been established that the vendor did not in fact have title to sell these works, the sales have been canceled and the objects returned to Russia,” the London-based auction house said in a statement.