New systems to protect the Hermitage's priceless exhibits

Experts believe the new secret marking system will prevent theft. Source: PhotoXPress

Experts believe the new secret marking system will prevent theft. Source: PhotoXPress

Showpieces at Russia's most prestigious museum are being marked with secret symbols to prevent theft.

The Hermitage museum has started marking its collection with secret coding developed by the Russian military in order to prevent pieces from being stolen, according to director Mikhail Piotrovsky,

The museum started the secret marking system in 2006, when investigators discovered that several items from the jewelry collection had disappeared. The custodian Larisa Zavadskaya was blamed, accused posthumously, as she died from thrombosis right at the workplace.

Officially the stolen items were estimated at 150 million rubles ($4.6 million), but some estimated that the stolen were worth a significantly higher amount. During the investigation, they searched for channels of distribution for the stolen items. In recent years, Zavadskaya had travelled to Finland, and there were initially suspicions that the stolen items are sold there.

In order to avoid similar cases in 2007, the chief curator of the Hermitage, Svetlana Adaskina, announced the development of the secret marking for customs. The system was planned to mark works within two years but was delayed until 2013.

The reason is clear: 150 thousand in the Hermitage display samples and about 3 million in storerooms. Marking each showpiece takes several hundred hours and days, as well as man power.

According to art historian Julia Saraeva, who has  considerable work experience in museums and galleries, the secret marking does not apply or is such a secret that no one knows about about .

"In the past, the system of labeling of showpieces was primitive — numbers written with an oil paint, but the little things could be attached with a tag. We now have more sparing materials, but the principle is the same: a museum room should not be washed away. And then if the showpiece gets on the black market, it immediately becomes clear that the thing is stolen," she said.

One thing is definite: Strengthening measures for storage of exhibits in museums is necessary. The history of theft in Russia, unfortunately, is rich. In the Soviet Union, the church utensils were often stolen.

It was not difficult. The church really guarded them, and there was no inventory. Only in the early 1980s did the government suddenly remember and start an inventory of cultural property, even in existing churches.

Annually in Russia from 50 up to 100 cases of theft of showpieces is recorded, and they are the only known cases. Mostly it was due to the lack of control — works were often carried off with the agreement with staff.

There has been also traditional identity theft. For example, in 1999 the 29-year-old unemployed Dmitry Rukavicyn with accomplices stole paintings by Vasily Perov from the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.

The paintings they stolen were from the first floor, and the thieves simply knocked out window panes. When museum guards went after them, the thieves responded with gunfire and escaped.

There have been many more petty thefts. This year a museum was robbed in Vyazniky in the Vladimir region. At night the robbers made off with the paintings of Shishkin, Korovin and Zhukovsky, after they museum guard forgot to turn on the alarm system for the night.

In Regina (Altai region) a woman stole a jar containing the embryos of Siamese twins from the local museum. The woman was detained.

The list is too long to be finished, neither customs nor the paintings of Shishkin, nor the Siamese twins have been discovered.

Ilya Wolf, the director general of the company Fine Art Way, which transports art work, said that he believes that when it comes to preventing smuggling through customs, the country should consider radiation control.

"If you consider this option, all work can be micro isotoped. In addition we can pass an olfactory control: when the dogs sniff the explosives or drugs. In theory, it can be assumed that the showpieces are sprayed with a special composition," he said. "I strongly doubt that criminals won't know exactly how the works of art are marked. Therefore, they will be able to avoid customs, this is contraband."

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