At Large  October 4, 2023  Rebecca Schiffman

Museum Employee Stole Paintings and Replaced Them With Forgeries

Wikimedia Commons

Franz von Stuck, The Frog Prince Fairy Tale, Es war einmal 1891

It's a museum’s worst nightmare: Paintings on its walls have been deemed forgeries, and the real works have been stolen by one of its own employees. 

At the Deutsches Museum in Munich, an employee stole paintings from the permanent collection, swapped them for forgeries, and sold the original works at auction, according to the judgment issued this month by a city court. 

A male technician, who was identified as "S.K." in court papers, under German privacy law, employed between May 2016 and April 2018 was the culprit at the German museum. He confessed to his scheme during the brief trial in court on September 11, explaining to the judge that he found it surprisingly easy to steal the works, calling into question the security and processes at the museum. The Munich District Court handed down a suspended prison sentence of one year and nine months, along with an order to repay the museum the money he received from his sale, around $63,000. 

Burkhard Mücke via Wikimedia Commons

Deutsches Museum in Munich.

The painting “The Frog Prince Fairy Tale” by Franz von Stuck was the work first discovered to be a forgery. That work was sold for €70,000, along with three other works that were sold or attempted to be sold, one by Eduard von Grützner and two by Franz von Defregger. Two of these works sold for much less, with prices under €7,000. The fourth work, another by Defregger, called Dirndl, went unsold. After auction house fees were taken out for the sold works, the thief received €60,617 ($64,000) in total. 

The forgery was found by an appraiser who went to check on the von Stuck work. He noticed that the work looked considerably different from its catalog entry. In a quote to the New York Times, which had the story, the museum’s spokeswoman said, “In the end, it was pretty easy to recognize as a forgery.” From there, the museum went through its art inventory and found the three other forgeries. 

The Deutsches Museum in Munich is not just an art museum. It mostly specializes in scientific and technical displays. It has artworks in its collection thanks to donations by private collectors and foundations, and the majority of its art collection is in storage. 

Now,  with support from the State Criminal Police Office, the museum is working to arrange the return of the works from the auction house.

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