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Topping up the kitty: Staff at Saint Petersburg's Hermitage puzzled after Frenchman leaves bequest to museum's cats in his will

On visiting Russia’s world-famous Hermitage Museum, it’s impossible to miss the army of cats guarding the building against pesky mice.

For many, the moggies are as memorable as the art collection – one of the planet’s most impressive and extensive. In fact, the feline friends made such an impact on one French visitor, he included them in his will, donating a small part of his fortune to keep them well looked after. 

“We don’t stop taking care of our cats – our visitors and internet users look after them,” museum director Mikhail Piotrovsky told a virtual conference. “They have their own patrons: recently, in France, a man even bequeathed a small amount of his will to our cats, and we are in correspondence with lawyers about it.”

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Maria Haltunen, who directs the museum’s cat program, told St. Petersburg newspaper Fontanka that they learnt of the inheritance last summer.

“The man died and divided what he left among his relatives and a French organization for the protection of the environment. He left a third part – small compared to the previous two – to the Hermitage cats,” she explained.

The museum staff couldn’t determine what prompted the Frenchman to donate, and whether he had ever even visited St. Petersburg.

The Hermitage has had cats since the 18th century, when Empress Elizabeth Petrovna made them permanent residents to help fight the incursion of rodents. Legend has it that the first mouse-hunters came from Kazan – a city apparently known for its rat-catching cats. During World War II, and the Siege of Leningrad (as the city was then known), all the cats died. Following the war, more felines were brought to the museum, where their counterparts still work today.

The Hermitage is based in the Winter Palace, the former official residence of the Russian emperors from 1762 until the revolution, in 1917. It is the second-largest art museum in the world, with a world-class collection, including not only paintings by the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt, but also a Michelangelo marble sculpture and many Egyptian antiquities.

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