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article imageSuspect held over brazen art theft from Moscow museum

By Ola CICHOWLAS (AFP)     Jan 28, 2019 in World

Russian police on Monday detained a man they believe snatched a 19th-century painting off the wall in a busy Moscow museum then strolled out past visitors and security.

Police and museum officials hailed the swift arrest and the recovery of the painting, but Sunday's brazen theft is raising questions about security at Moscow's Tretyakov gallery, home to some of Russia's most storied art.

The 31-year-old man took a Crimean landscape by Russian artist Arkhip Kuindzhi and carried it through a room filled with visitors, according to the officials.

In a video shot by police after apprehending the man, who has not been named, he denies any wrongdoing.

"I don't breach the law or the Russian Constitution," says the man, who is shown kneeling and clearly sporting a black eye.

The painting, depicting the Ai-Petri mountain in Crimea, was completed between 1898 and 1908.

It is the second security incident to hit the gallery in a year, after a visitor in May seriously damaged a painting of Ivan the Terrible.

- Drove off in a jeep -

"He took it off the wall, walked behind a column and jumped out of the gallery with the painting without its frame," the gallery's director Zelfira Tregulova told a Moscow press conference.

He then drove off with the oil painting in a jeep, she said.

Tregulova said the museum's security staff initially received a report that a fur coat had been stolen, but moments later one of the gallery's attendants sounded the alarm that the painting was missing.

The incident occurred during the museum's opening hours at around 6:00 pm (1500 GMT) at an exhibition with more than 120 Kuindzhi paintings which Tregulova called "extremely popular."

"At the time of the theft, the museum's security -- carried out by forces of the National Guard and the museum's security service -- was working normally," the gallery initially said in a statement.

Police arrested the suspect the next morning in a village outside Moscow. He admitted hiding the art work at a construction site from where it was recovered.

The interior ministry said the man had previously been charged with drug possession and was currently not allowed to leave Russia.

Tregulova said it was a "miracle" that the painting was found so quickly and undamaged. She added that experts are examining the work's condition, but expected it to be back at the gallery by Monday evening.

She called the theft a "dramatic event for the entire Russian museum community."

- 'Security sensors' -

Following the incident, Russia's culture ministry ordered extensive security checks at the Tretyakov gallery and in the country's other leading museums.

The head of the ministry's museum department Vladislav Kononov told reporters Monday that all of the Tretyakov gallery's paintings will soon be equipped with electronic security sensors.

These will sound if visitors come too close to a painting.

Kononov added that Russia's museums saw a record number of visitors in 2018 and that the "percentage of unlawful acts (in museums) is rising."

He referred to an incident last May when a man slashed a painting by Ilya Repin depicting Tsar Ivan the Terrible after he killed his son.

Tregulova said that "conclusions were drawn" from the May crime but "that was obviously not enough."

She said the museum had undertaken a modernisation of its security system, but has yet to change its "mentality."

"The mentality is built on principles that a visitor is coming to look at art," she said.

"There should be a conversation on how to stay open (to visitors) while making sure such incidents don't repeat themselves."

The Kremlin on Monday said the gallery is "protected at a proper level" but added that "conclusions must be drawn".

It praised authorities for recovering the painting.

"Thank God, thanks to the energetic efforts of our law enforcement officers, the painting was found quickly and efficiently," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

On its website, the gallery calls Arkhip Kuindzhi, who died in 1910, "one of the most memorable figures in Russian painting of the second half of the 19th century."

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