Former German museum worker sentenced to prison for stealing and selling paintings

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A former technical worker at the Deutsches Museum in Munich was sentenced to prison for stealing paintings from the depot and selling them via an auction house to buy himself luxuries. In one case, he replaced a painting by Franz von Stuck with a forged copy and auctioned off the original.

A court in Munich sentenced the thief, who is 30 and cannot be named under German privacy laws, to a year and nine months in prison and ordered him to pay damages of more than €60,000 on 11 September. He was found guilty of stealing four paintings in total, and selling three of them via a Munich auction house—under the pretence they belonged to his family—while he was working at the museum from 2016 to 2018.

“The accused shamelessly exploited his access to the depots in his employer’s premises and sold valuable cultural property to secure himself an exclusive standard of living and to boast about it,” the court said in a statement. It added that he had acquired a new apartment, expensive watches and a Rolls Royce.

But the Munich district court also said the sentence was relatively lenient because the man had no prior criminal record, had expressed regret, and because his crimes were several years ago. “He said he acted without reflection,” the court said. “He could no longer explain his behaviour to himself.”

The Deutsches Museum is one of the biggest science and technology museums in the world. It has acquired its art collection primarily through bequests from individuals and foundations and these are mainly kept in the depot, says Sabine Pelgjer, a spokeswoman for the museum.

The loss of the Stuck painting, called The Fairy Tale of the Frog King, was discovered when a provenance researcher gained access to it and noticed that it was “quite a clumsy copy,” despite being in the right frame, Pelgjer says. A further inspection of the depots revealed that three other paintings were also missing. “Only the frames were left,” she says.

The former museum employee sold two of these: Eduard von Grützner’s The Winetasting, for which he got almost €4,500, and Two Girls Collecting Wood in the Mountains by Franz von Defregger, which earned him €7,000. A third work, Franz Defregger’s Dirndl, failed to sell at another Munich auction house. The thief cashed in more than €49,000 for the sale of the Stuck painting, which was purchased by a Swiss gallery.

“Access to the depot is very tightly regulated,” Pelgjer says. “Our staff are all very reliable, but there is not much you can do if one employee harbours criminal energy. He had no previous record and there was no way of knowing he was capable of this when we hired him.”

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