Of the hundreds of nameless curators shuffling through the former czarist palaces that now comprise the State Hermitage Museum, Larisa Zavadskaya, a specialist in enamels, was an unlikely bandit. Middle- aged and down at the heel with a health condition, Larisa was brewing a scandal that would shake the art world from New York to Paris. Her offense, stuffing her purse with hundreds of pieces of jewelry, icons and silverware that were later farmed out to antique dealers.
Discovery of the thefts came to light in 2005 when inspectors arrived to inventory her department. Zavadskaya dropped dead of a heart attack on the spot. The cultural elite began to doubt the safety of the institution and the inevitable questions whispered; if she had managed to pilfer hundreds of pieces without detection, what else was missing from the Hermitage or elsewhere?
Since the Zavadskaya thefts, Russian officials have struggled to take stock of the country’s cultural heritage. A massive national audit was ordered by an enraged President Vladimir Putin, the first of its kind undertaken by post-Soviet Russia; thousands of officials from all nooks of Russia’s considerable state bureaucracy fanned out to check the warehouses, basements and display cases of more than 1,000 museums across the country. With 79.5 million pieces of art and artifacts stored in cavernous palaces of a bygone empire, the Hermitage has been the heart of Russian art ever since Catherine the Great bought troves of European paintings and sculpture creating the core that would swell into the current collection. As it turns out there is plenty missing; the audit’s findings conclude 221 items are currently unaccounted, but Russia’s cultural officials have acknowledged that at least 87,000 pieces have vanished.
Maxim Shepel, a well-known collector was taken into police custody after a tip from antique dealer Vladimir Studenikin whose gallery in Moscow specializes in porcelain and icons. A gilded silver chalice decorated with oval enamel portraits of Jesus, Mary and John the Baptist; identified as a missing piece from the Hermitage, was purchased from Shepel by Studenikin. After 10 days in custody, Shepel suffered a nervous collapse and a severe eye injury that some reports said was self-inflicted but others attributed to a beating. Shepel was released and entered a psychiatric hospital.
After this incident, those in possession of hot Hermitage antiques quickly dumped them. Stolen artifacts began to appear
anonymously outside police stations. The icon of Saint Alexander Nevsky at Prayer was discovered in a locker at a Finland train station, another icon worth $200,000 was found at the entrance of the FSB (successor to the KGB).
Heirlooms in Russia are no longer hereditary after several generations of confiscation, sales of desperation or lost documented lineage. The tragic stories, so iconic of Russian culture, are all that remain in many cases. This has only heightened interest at the Hermitage, which is more crowded than Moscow’s metro at rush hour. People obscure the Rembrandts, and it is nearly impossible to see the malachite in the Malachite Room. The irony is not lost on the museum directors, underfunded and with deteriorating collections as a result, the directors find themselves constantly knocking on government doors to get money for increased storage and modernization of record keeping. They may finally get the state assistance they have long sought, but the price could be their independence.