German museum employee swaps painting for fake and sells original to fund "luxury lifestyle"

CNN_ A German museum employee swapped out a painting with a fake and then sold the original to buy luxury goods, including a Rolls Royce and expensive wristwatches, according to a Munich court.

The 30-year-old man, who remains unnamed due to Germany’s strict privacy laws, was also convicted of stealing three other artworks. He avoided jail but was handed a 21-month suspended sentence and ordered to pay back the museum more than 60,600 euros ($64,200).

In a press release published Monday, Munich District Court said its sentencing took into account that the man had confessed and shown “genuine remorse.”

“He said he acted without thinking,” read the court ruling. “He can no longer explain his behavior today,”

The man, who was an employee of the Deutsches Museum in Munich, worked in collection management from May 2016 to April 2018.

During that time, he stole “Das Märchen vom Froschkönig” (The Tale of the Frog Prince) by Franz von Stuck, replaced it with a fake and put the original up for auction. He lied to a Munich auction house, saying the painting had once belonged to his grandparents or great-grandparents. It later sold to a Swiss gallery for 70,000 euros ($74,000), and the man received almost 50,000 euros ($52,000) in cash, after auction fees were deducted.

“Das Märchen vom Froschkönig” (The Tale of the Frog Prince) by Franz von Stuck.

He also stole three other paintings from the museum’s storage facility, and successfully sold two of them — “Die Weinprüfung” (The Wine Test) by Eduard von Grützner and “Zwei Mädchen beim Holzsammeln im Gebirge” (Two Girls Collecting Wood in the Mountains) by Franz von Defregger. One of the works was sold via auction and the other was purchased directly by the auction house, netting him another 11,490 euros ($12,184).

He used the money to pay off debts and fund a “luxurious lifestyle,” the court said, adding: “The defendant shamelessly exploited the opportunity to access the storage rooms … and sold valuable cultural assets in order to secure a high standard of living for himself and to show off.”

The man also attempted to auction off the other stolen painting, “Dirndl” by Franz von Defregger, at a different Munich auction house, but it did not sell.

In a statement emailed to CNN, the auction house behind the three successful sales, Ketterer Kunst, said it had “simply not (been) possible to identify them as stolen property.”

“We have fulfilled our duty of care in full and have researched the works mentioned extensively,” added an auction house spokesperson. “We regret that the works were stolen from the museum … (and) we cooperated closely with the (police) at an early stage and handed over all documents to solve this case.”

The Deutsches Museum meanwhile told CNN that it is making efforts to recover the paintings. In an email, a spokesperson said the museum was seeking to have the sales reversed, and that one of the paintings is already in police possession.

The spokesperson added that the area from which the paintings were stolen is “basically sufficiently secured,” and that the museum had conducted a background check on the man, who at the time had no criminal record.