Seattle art thief, just out of prison, faces new charges
A notorious Seattle art thief, barely out of prison for a series of brazen art heists from some of the city's most respected collectors...
Seattle Times staff reporter
The theftsThe stolen works of art — and their creators — linked by charging documents to former Seattle gallery owner Kurt Lidtke and two accomplices:
Paintings: Guy Anderson, J.G. Brown, Kenneth Callahan, Morris Graves, Mark Tobey
Sculpture: Jean Arp
A notorious Seattle art thief, barely out of prison for a series of brazen art heists from some of the city's most respected collectors, has been arrested in the sales of stolen artwork, including a Rembrandt etching taken in a Sammamish burglary.
Kurt Lidtke, a former Seattle gallery owner, wept in court in 2007 while apologizing for thefts that had stunned the Northwest's art community. He was ordered to pay more than $400,000 in restitution and sent to prison for 40 months for thefts first detailed in a series of stories in The Seattle Times. He was accused of selling consigned artwork without paying the owners, and pleaded guilty to nine felony theft charges in a plea bargain.
He was released from prison Dec. 21.
According to charges unsealed Tuesday in U.S. District Court, Lidtke was working with a convicted burglar to steal artworks and then sell them. Lidtke was arrested in Bozeman, Mont., on Tuesday, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office, and was to appear in federal court there.
Some of the art in the most recent thefts is believed to have come from a November 2009 burglary from an unidentified Seattle homeowner and included Morris Graves and Mark Tobey paintings valued at more than $190,000.
Agents also believe Lidtke and his associates were casing several Seattle homes for future thefts.
The charges allege Lidtke was targeting houses for a burglar who was then breaking in and stealing art that Lidtke unknowingly was marketing to an undercover FBI employee.
During phone conversations with the undercover employee, Lidtke is reported to have said the Department of Corrections had offered him a business opportunity by locking him up "with a bunch of criminals." Lidtke, once a trusted art dealer, knew who had valuable collections.
"I can say, 'Hey, go get that painting for me,' you know, and they do," Lidtke reportedly told the agent. "Crazy. It's just crazy."
The burglar is identified in charging documents as Jerry "Hugh" Christy, also known as Nick Natti, a former cellmate of Lidtke's in state prison. Christy's criminal record includes 10 felony convictions, among them theft, possession of stolen property and burglary, according to the charges.
Christy and his wife, Georgia, also known as Monica Natti, were arrested in Seattle on Tuesday and appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Mary Alice Theiler, who set a preliminary hearing for May 25. Both were ordered held pending detention hearings this week.
Lidtke and the Christys are each charged with a single count of conspiracy to transport stolen property across state lines.
Christy, according to the charges, was questioned by Seattle police at the behest of the FBI on April 30 while parked outside an undisclosed home that contained art by Tobey, Marc Chagall and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
The investigation began in 2007 when a member of the FBI's Art Crime Team in New York recovered a painting by J.G. Brown entitled "A Boy and His Dog," which had been stolen in 2004 from a Spokane home. The agent tracked the painting to an Omak art dealer who said he had purchased it for $7,000 in 2005 from a man he identified as "Hugh Carter."
Carter subsequently was identified as Christy, according to documents.
In November 2007, a burglar took a $20,000 Rembrandt etching, "The Return of the Prodigal Son," from a Sammamish home.
The charges say the FBI used a confidential source to introduce Hugh Christy to a person in Oregon identified as an "Undercover FBI employee" who was posing as an art buyer. A month after the Rembrandt etching was taken, Christy contacted the undercover FBI worker and offered it for $5,000, according to the charges. The FBI employee gave a check to Georgia Christy when she delivered the artwork in Portland in January 2008, the charges say.
The owner of the etching has identified the frame but believes the etching may be a fake, the charges say.
The November 2009 burglary in Seattle netted the thieves 13 pieces of art, including the Graves and Tobey paintings, others by Kenneth Callahan and Guy Anderson and a sculpture by Jean Arp, according to the charges.
In February 2010, the undercover FBI employee began receiving phone calls about the paintings on a telephone number that had been given to the Christys, according to the charges. The first two callers identified themselves by first name only and said the paintings were available for cash and represented a "good opportunity."
The third call, according to the charges, was from Lidtke, who left a message "stating that he had some paintings for sale." Based on a number of conversations, the undercover FBI employee concluded Lidtke and at least one of the other callers were the same person.
The charges allege that, on March 4, Lidtke was photographed by an FBI surveillance team dropping the paintings off at a "mail-receiving location" in Portland. Agents recovered the Tobey and Graves works, which have been authenticated as the art stolen in Seattle, the charges say.
The undercover FBI employee paid Lidtke $35,000 for the Tobey work and $40,000 for the Graves paintings.
Meantime, the charges say Lidtke began negotiating to sell other valuable works, saying an associate "worked alone, loads up his car in the garage and drives away." He said he had access to paintings by Renoir and Pablo Picasso, among others, and that his associate was "watching several mansions."
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or email@example.com
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