U.S. returns stolen tsar's pendant to Russia

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The United States on Thursday returned home a stolen silver pendant that once belonged to Russia’s last tsar and surfaced on a online auction site last year with a starting price of $500.

In a conciliatory gesture, U.S. Ambassador John Beyrle handed the pendant to Russian prosecutorial official Vladimir Markin in a small ceremony that brought U.S. lawmen and Russian cultural agents to the ambassador’s residence in central Moscow.

“This is not just a story about a small medallion, it is also a big example of successful cooperation that is building a better relationship,” Beyrle said.

Among more than 200 items authorities say were stolen four years ago by a married Russian couple working at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg -- the Winter Palace of the tsars -- the pendant emerged on a U.S. auction site late last year.

Russia had asked the United States to recover the pendant, which is 2.6 cm long and 1.7 cm wide and depicts a tiny portrait of eighteenth century Czar Peter the Great.

“We were able to locate the individual who had it, seize it and bring it back home,” said Special-Agent-in-Charge Leigh Winchell, adding that it was found in the northwestern U.S. state of Washington.

He refused to identify who had the piece but said legal action against the person would take place.

Russia’s cultural preservation agency, Rosokhrankultura, said the pendant once belonged to Czar Nicholas II, who was killed by the Bolsheviks after they swept to power in 1918.

It was among 220 items stolen from the Hermitage by the couple, said Alexander Kibovsky, the agency’s head.

He added the cash value of the pendant, which shows the long-haired, mustachioed Peter the Great clad in amour, was about $5,000, but that it was the cultural significance for Russians that made it “invaluable.” U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has pledged to “reset” relations with Russia, which sank to a post-Cold War low during the presidencies of George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, now Russia’s Prime Minister.

Ties have warmed, but tension persists as Washington and Moscow wrestle to work out a landmark nuclear arms reduction treaty and continue to disagree on issues such as missile defense and NATO expansion.

Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman; editing by Matthew Jones