A German Museum Employee Has Been Caught ‘Shamelessly’ Swapping Original Paintings for Fakes to Fund His Lavish Lifestyle

The man is said to have spent the money on a new apartment, wristwatches, and a Rolls-Royce.

Franz von Stuck, The Fairy Tale of the Frog King (1891). Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images.

A German museum employee has confessed to an audacious scheme, after he was caught swapping out paintings with forgeries and selling the originals to fund a luxury lifestyle. He has received a suspended prison sentence of one year and nine months and must pay back more than €60,000 ($63,500) to the German museum, the Munich District Court ordered on September 11.

The man, now aged 30, stole three paintings while working at the Deutsches Museum in Munich as a technician between May 2016 and April 2018. He replaced the paintings with fakes while they were in storage, consigning the originals to a Munich auction house.

The defendant allegedly used the money to pay debts and fund a luxury lifestyle, the court heard. “Among other things, he bought a new apartment, expensive wristwatches, and bought a Rolls-Royce,” read the verdict, noting that the man now showed remorse. “He stated that he had acted without thinking. He could no longer explain his behavior today.”

After replacing Franz Stuck’s Das Märchen vom Froschkönig (The Fairy Tale of the Frog King) (1891) with a forgery, the man pretended the original was a family heirloom and it was sold at Ketterer Kunst auction house in May 2017 to a Swiss gallery for €70,000 ($74,000). After auction house fees, he received $49,127.40 ($52,000).

Two more paintings that were switched out for fakes, Franz von Defregger’s Zwei Mädchen beim Holzsammeln im Gebirge (Two Girls Gathering Wood in the Mountains) and Eduard von Grützner’s Die Weinprüfung (Tasting the Wine), brought in an additional €11,490.50 ($12,700). An attempt to sell a fourth painting, Franz von Defregger’s Dirndl, at another Munich auction house was unsuccessful. The man made €60,617 ($64,000) in total.

“We have, of course, fulfilled our duty of care in full and have researched the works mentioned extensively,” a spokesperson for Ketterer Kunst told Artnet News. “We regret that the works were stolen from the museum with such high criminal energy. We cooperated closely with the LKA (Bavarian State Criminal Police Office) at an early stage and handed over all documents to solve this case.”

The Deutsches Museum is currently trying to arrange for the return of the pictures, according to Süddeutsche Zeitung. It apparently has many valuable German paintings languishing in storage thanks to a history of receiving bequests from local foundations and families.

“The defendant shamelessly exploited the opportunity to access the storage rooms in the employer’s buildings and sold valuable cultural assets in order to secure an exclusive standard of living for himself and to show off,” the verdict summarized.

The apparent vulnerability of the museum’s collection to theft while in storage recalls the recent scandal of a senior curator at the British Museum accused of stealing some 1,500 objects, several of which were sold for cheap on eBay. Most of these items had never been catalogued, revealing the complex challenges faced by museums tasked with keeping track of vast holdings.

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