Police hold two Hermitage suspects

ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - Police have detained the husband and son of a museum curator on suspicion of stealing hundreds of artworks from Russia's world-famous Hermitage Museum, Interfax news agency said on Saturday.

The suspects have confessed to stealing about $5 million worth of artefacts over a period of six years with the help of a member of the museum staff who is now dead, the agency quoted a source close to the investigation as saying.

"Two people suspected of stealing exhibits from the State Hermitage Collections were detained overnight," Interfax quoted the source as saying. Police said they could not confirm the report.

The Hermitage in St Petersburg is home to a massive collection of sculpture, paintings and historic artefacts that was started by Empress Catherine the Great in 1764.

Interfax said one of the suspects was married to Larisa Zavadskaya, a curator who died suddenly at work during an audit of the Hermitage collection that uncovered the thefts. It said the other was her son.

Russia's Channel One television station said detectives searching the suspects' property had found pawnbrokers' receipts for items that matched some of the stolen artefacts. Neither suspect has yet been charged.

The missing items are mainly silver and enamel pieces from the Middle Ages and 19th century.

"We cannot comment on details of this investigation but we can say that there has been significant progress," Boris Boyarskov, head of Russia's state heritage watchdog, told Channel One.

Investigators this week recovered one of the missing items in a rubbish bin after an anonymous phone tip-off. The icon of the Church of All Saints had been left in a bin near a police office in St Petersburg.

The thefts came to light when curators carried out their first comprehensive inventory of the museum in decades.

"Our inquiries show that the standard of (security) in this important museum is not as high as one would like," said Boyarskov.

Museum staff have asked dealers and collectors to help them recover the stolen artworks. A Moscow antiques dealer on Friday surrendered to the authorities a gold and silver-plated chalice that had come from the Hermitage.


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