Canvas stolen from the Hermitage. A group of employees of the museum is suspected

A 19th-century painting with a potential market value of well over $1 million was stolen from the third floor of the State Hermitage Museum (St Petersburg) on Thursday. According to the museum's press service the painting, "Pool in a Harem," painted by French artist Jean-Leon Gerome in 1876 and insured by the museum six years ago at $1 million, was cut from its frame and stolen sometime during the day before 4 p.m. Workers at the museum said that the exhibit hall where the painting was hanging was closed to visitors at the time. According to police, the picture and its frame were not connected to the museum's alarm system, and the third story of the building - where the picture was at the time of theft - was only supervised by one custodian. Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky said on Thursday that the case was being investigated by both city police and the Federal Security Service (FSB), as well as international experts. Piotrovsky said he was optimistic that "Pool in a Harem" would be recovered. "Whatever has been stolen before has always been returned to the museum," he said in remarks reported by Interfax. "The theft was probably carried out by someone familiar with the alarm network systems," said Igor Puchek, an electrician employed at the museum. "Or they would have had to have known that the painting would not be hooked up to the alarm." "I don't rule out that this was [the work of] an insider. The museum has collaborated with several contracting firms, including those involved in setting up alarm systems," he added. Piotrovsky said that the painting "was not a masterpiece, but a well-known work that would be impossible to sell." The museum was closed immediately upon the discovery of the painting's disappearance at around 4 p.m., and visitors were prohibited from leaving the museum. Investigators from the special art-theft detachment of the St. Petersburg Police Department were conducting searches of all visitors before allowing them to leave. One of the investigators, who would not identify himself, said that the investigation had already turned up leads. He refused to elaborate. Police officials at the special art-theft detachment would give no other details about the heist on Thursday evening. Visitors were allowed to leave in small groups, and by 7 p.m. police at the scene said only about 100 people had yet to be searched and remained inside. Shortly after 7 p.m., however, more police arrived at the Hermitage to help with the investigation, “St Petersburg Times” reports. According to Nadezhda Zabolotskaya, who has worked for 40 years as an art expert at the Hermitage, the heist must have been thoroughly prepared, and was probably the work of a team. "Maybe it was an insider," said Zabolotskaya, who was also trapped inside the museum during the searches. "Cases have been known when people have sought employment at a museum with the specific purpose of stealing a precious item."

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