Museum Theft Ends with Figurine Returned

A man accused of stealing a euro50 million (US$60 million) Renaissance figurine from Vienna's Art History Museum made no deal with police in exchange for leading investigators to the missing work last weekend, the suspect's lawyer said Wednesday.

Gerald Albrecht, the attorney representing the suspected thief, denied allegations by the museum's director, Wilfried Seipel, that police agreed to go easy on the suspect in exchange for the return of the 16th century gold-plated "Saliera," or salt cellar, by Florentine master Benvenuto Cellini.

"There was no deal made with the police," Albrecht said.

Albrecht accused Seipel and others of trying to discredit the 50-year-old thief "so the populace reviles him as evil."

Ernst Geiger, head of the Vienna police department's criminal investigations division, said the May 2003 theft was highly professional and insisted that authorities were neither exaggerating nor playing down the seriousness of the crime.

The alleged mastermind turned himself in on Friday after police released photos identifying him as a suspect, and police recovered the figurine the next day. It was returned to the care of Austria's Culture Ministry on Sunday.

In a debate Wednesday in parliament about the affair, lawmakers criticized Seipel for allowing the conditions that made the theft possible.

Wolfgang Zinggl, in charge of cultural affairs for the opposition Green Party, accused the museum director of trying to divert attention away from his own responsibility for the theft of the cherished figurine "and save his own skin."

"There was a serious lack of security around the museum and Seipel knew it," added Christine Muttonen, who holds the culture portfolio in parliament for the main opposition party, the Social Democrats.

Seipel has maintained that the museum's alarm system was only eight years old and still "state of the art" at the time of the 2003 theft. But Ernst Kloyber, a spokesman for Vienna's public prosecutor's office, told Austrian television Wednesday that the museum's security was "clearly insufficient."

Austrian media reported that the 26-centimeter (10-inch) masterpiece was slightly damaged after being buried in a wooden case in the town of Zwettl, about 90 kilometers (55 miles) north of Vienna, but museum officials said it soon would be restored and rejoin the regular collection.

Police declined to identify the suspect, but said he installed alarm systems for a living, which gave him the technical background necessary to pull off the theft. Investigators said he confessed to the crime on Saturday; his lawyer has not challenged allegations of his client's guilt.

He had been photographed by a surveillance camera while buying a cell phone that was then allegedly used to send a text message to police during a failed attempt last year to ransom the figurine, the Salzburger Nachrichten newspaper reported.

The thief broke in from scaffolding on the second floor of the museum, smashed a window and a glass showcase, removed the figurine and apparently left the way he came. Museum officials subsequently said that guards heard an alarm but discounted it as false.

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