A German court has sentenced a former museum employee for stealing paintings and then replacing them with forgeries. German privacy laws protect the man’s identity, but the former museum technician was convicted of illegally selling cultural property, for which he received a suspended 21-month sentence along with a €60,000 fine. The anonymous man worked in the archive of the Deutsches Museum, the world’s largest science and technology museum in Munich. However, it also frequently receives donations of art from local collections and organizations. He stole and replaced three paintings between May 2016 and April 2018. All the works were not on display but kept in the museum storerooms, making it easier for him to get away with his theft. He then consigned the originals to the local auction house Ketterer Kunst.
The most valuable of the stolen works was Es war einmal by Franz Stuck, one of Bavaria’s great nineteenth-century painters. With the title meaning Once Upon a Time, the work shows a scene from the Frog Prince fairy tale. It was formerly in the collection of Braunschweig factory owner Arthur von Franquet before being given to the Deutsches Museum after he died in 1931. The anonymous thief also stole Zwei Mädchen beim Holzsammeln im Gebirge (Two Girls Gathering Wood in the Mountains) by Franz Defregger and Die Weinprüfung (Tasting the Wine) by Eduard von Grützner. In total, he received €60,617 for the three works. He also stole a fourth painting, Defregger’s Dirndl, but was unsuccessful in selling it. The thief told auction house specialists that the paintings were family heirlooms. He used the money he received to pay debts and fund a life of luxury. He reportedly bought himself a new apartment, a Rolls-Royce, and several expensive wristwatches.
Reports of the trial say the defendant expressed remorse. Well, of course he showed remorse. He got caught. I don’t think he was ridden with guilt when he bought that Rolls-Royce. But of course, this is a massive embarrassment for both Munich’s Deutsches Museum and Ketterer Kunst, probably more so for the latter than the former. Auction houses have reputations to uphold, which they do by doing their due diligence and performing extensive research. They have to ensure everything’s in order and that the seller legally owns the work. That way, scandals like this don’t develop to this extent. As for the Deutsches Museum, it is fortunate that the works were returned to them. Perhaps the British Museum should take notes on how this was handled so they avoid further embarrassment in the future.