It Takes a Thief
Bozeman Arrest Leads to Jail Time for Thomas Crown Wanna Be
Stealing and swindling collectors out of their precious objets d’art may have the ring of romantic adventure to it, reminiscent of movies like The Thomas Crown Affair, but serving prison time and paying restitution takes the luster off such criminal exploits.
Following a lengthy undercover investigation by the FBI, former Seattle art gallery owner Kurt Lidtke was arrested May 11, 2010, in Bozeman. More recently, on February 15, Lidtke was sentenced in United States District Court to four years in prison and three years of supervised release.
His crimes—transporting stolen goods across state lines and conspiracy. Lidtke was also ordered to pay $77,000 in restitution for conspiring with a professional burglar to steal art from his former clients.
Kurt Lidtke is an art thief. His modus operandi involved appraising art, including Renoirs and Picassos, in the homes of unsuspecting collectors in the Northwest, and then conspiring with a partner, another art thief with whom Lidtke shared a prison cell, to burglarize those homes and make off with the stolen paintings.
According to court documents, Lidtke admitted planning a Novem-ber 2009 heist at a residence in Seattle where his partner stole a statue and 13 paintings, valuables estimated at about $190,000.
Lidtke had already spent three-years in prison for nine counts of first-degree theft, having stolen $435,000 from the sale of paintings consigned in 2007 at his Seattle gallery in Pioneer Square. Lidtke sold art without informing or paying the owners of the art. It was during the course of the prison term resulting from that criminal activity that he met Jerry Christy, his cellmate, with whom he conducted criminal activity more recently.
After his arrest last May in Bozeman, Chief United States District Judge Robert S Lasnik sentenced Lidtke to more prison time than called for by sentencing guidelines. “You have tricked so many people into thinking you could be trusted to go into their homes,” Lasnik told Lidtke, “or entrusted to sell their art on consignment...the evidence shows you are a thief who thinks he is entitled to other people’s property and money.” Lidtke pleaded guilty November 18, 2010.
Investigator’s began pursuing Lidtke in 2007 when the FBI's Art Crime Team in New York recovered a painting by J.G. Brown titled "A Boy and His Dog" that had been stolen in 2004 from a house in Spokane. The FBI learned that the man who sold the painting to the Spokane collec-tor was Jerry H. Christy, Lidtke’s former cellmate.
According to a 2008 plea agreement, Lidtke and Christy, met while both were inmates at the Washington State Corrections Center in Monroe. While in prison, Lidtke and Christy hatched a plan to steal valuable artwork from homes in Seattle and resell it. When they left prison and executed the plan, they contacted a buyer who turned out to be an undercover agent with the FBI.
”Our Montana search warrant application, which is unsealed, reveals that Lidtke told [the] undercover agent that he had moved to Montana to do farrier work,” Emily Langlie of the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Western District of Washington told the Pioneer. “It also reveals that subsequent investigation by the FBI showed that Lidtke was enrolled in school in Bozeman and living at the Magnuson Grand City Central Hotel, also in Bozeman.”
Other court documents reveal Lidtke shipped at least one piece of art stolen in Washington, a Jean Arp sculpture, to the undercover agent from Montana.
During the course of the inves-tigation, the FBI conducted surveillance of the defendants and of possible targets. In April 2010, the FBI had Seattle police officers accost Christy while he was parked in a van outside a targeted home and prevented a burglary of that home. The home was targeted because Lidtke knew of the art collection from his prior career as an art dealer. The home contained work by Chagall, Renoir, and Tobey, and Lidtke had been negotiating the sale of that artwork with an undercover FBI agent.
In the course of the investi-gation, the FBI recovered numerous paintings and a sculpture that had been stolen in a Seattle burglary in November 2009. Paintings recovered in the course of the investigation include two by northwest artist Morris Graves, one by Mark Tobey, and a Rembrandt etching. In his sentencing memo, Assistant United States Attorney Andrew Friedman asked Chief Judge Lasnik to sentence Lidtke to more prison time than called for in the sentencing guidelines, because, Friedman noted, Lidtke started plotting his new crimes even while he was imprisoned for stealing art consigned to his gallery. “Lidtke put his knowledge of the art world to ill use by orchestrating burglaries of people’s homes.”
“Burglaries are, of course, always dangerous crimes,” Friedman wrote in his sentencing memo, “and easily can result in confrontations between burglar and victim, which can end in violence, and perhaps deadly violence. Moreover, burglaries violate victims’ sense of security and trust in their own homes.”
Friedman said Lidtke and Christy were planning a series of burglaries and that the stolen art would have exceeded $1 million in value. Prosecutors added that Lidtke abused the trust of clients who had invited him into their homes to appraise their art, and that “Lidtke's attitude was "entirely cavalier." Rather than express remorse for his crimes, "Lidtke flippantly chose to blame the Department of Corrections for housing him with Christy."
Jerry H. Christy of Granite Falls, Washington (aka Nick Natti), and his wife, Georgia Christy (aka Monica Natti) both pleaded guilty and will be sentenced later this year.
The FBI’s Art Crime Team provided assistance in the investi-gation, a unit formed in response to the looting of Iraqi antiquities following the Gulf War and comprised of a cadre of special agents and Assistant United States Attorneys with specialized knowledge and experi-ence in art and cultural property investigations.