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Originally published Friday, February 11, 2011 at 3:31 PM

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Disgraced Seattle gallery owner sentenced to prison in art-theft case

Former Seattle gallery owner turned art thief Kurt Lidtke was sentenced Friday to four years in federal prison and ordered to pay $77,000 in restitution for conspiring with a professional burglar to steal art from his former clients.

Seattle Times staff reporter

A former Seattle gallery owner turned art thief, Kurt Lidtke, was sentenced Friday to four years in federal prison and ordered to pay $77,000 in restitution for conspiring with a professional burglar to steal art from his former clients.

The four-year sentence exceeded by a year the recommendation of federal probation officials, and was a year more than Lidtke's attorney, Ralph Hurvitz, asked the court to impose. The prosecution recommended five years.

Lidtke, 45, howled when U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik asked him what it was like to tell his two young daughters what he'd done.

"It was horrible!" he wept. "I made a huge mistake. My girl said, 'If you really loved me you wouldn't have done this.' "

Lasnik agreed that Lidtke's family is suffering for his selfishness, and said the crimes were all the more shocking because Lidtke was intelligent, gifted and had lived a privileged life, unlike many of the defendants who come before him from shattered homes and abusive pasts.

"It appears the major tragedy in your life was when you were on the Oregon tennis team and you lost a few matches," the judge said. "It boggles the mind.

"The evidence has shown that you are a thief who believes he is entitled to other people's property," Lasnik said. "You used your intelligence and your charming personality, but you are still a thief."

Lidtke went to prison the first time in 2007 for bilking his gallery customers by selling their art on consignment and then stealing the money. While serving a 40-month term, he met professional art thief Jerry Christy, who was his cellmate.

Lidtke and Christy began planning burglaries of the homes of art owners Lidtke had met when he owned and operated a tony Pioneer Square art gallery.

Lidtke admitted that he planned a November 2009 burglary at the home of an unidentified Seattle art owner where a statue and 13 paintings — including some by Mark Tobey and Morris Graves — were taken. The loss was valued at more than $190,000, according to court documents.

The criminal investigation of Lidtke began in 2007 when a member of the FBI's Art Crime Team in New York recovered a painting by J.G. Brown titled "A Boy and His Dog," which had been stolen in 2004 from a Spokane home. The buyer identified the man who sold it to him as "Hugh Carter," who was later identified as Christy.

Christy, who is also known as Nick Natti, and his wife, Georgia, have also pleaded guilty to felony charges and are awaiting sentencing.

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Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Friedman, in asking that the court impose a five-year sentence, said Lidtke's crimes were among the "more brazen" to come before the court. In addition to the 2009 burglary, Friedman said Lidtke and Christy were planning a string of thefts in which the losses could have easily exceeded $1 million.

In April 2010, police officers — at the request of the FBI — stopped and questioned Christy while he was parked outside an unidentified home containing art by Tobey, Marc Chagall and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. According to the plea agreement, Lidtke had been negotiating for the sale of some of that artwork with an undercover FBI agent.

In 2007, Lidtke was sentenced to 40 months in prison and ordered to pay more than $400,000 in restitution after he pleaded guilty to nine felony-theft charges in a plea bargain. He was released from prison Dec. 21, 2009.

From 1999 to 2004, Lidtke went to the homes of art collectors and signed agreements to sell on consignment the works by artists in the Northwest School. The owners were not compensated, court records say, nor were the paintings returned.

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com

Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report, which includes information from Times archives.

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