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Thief of $65 million painting is sentenced

The mastermind of Austria's biggest art heist gets four years in prison.

A thief who carried out Austria’s most spectacular art heist three years ago of a $65 million Renaissance figurine was sentenced Thursday to four years in prison.

Robert Mang, an alarm systems expert who said he stole the prized work from Vienna’s Art History Museum as a prank and described the caper as “child’s play,” had faced up to 10 years’ imprisonment. The case triggered months of heated debate over whether the Austrian capital’s famed museums had proper security.

Mang, 50, was convicted of the theft but acquitted on a separate charge of attempted extortion after the court decided there was insufficient evidence to prove he allegedly threatened to destroy the prized work unless up to $13 million in ransom was paid.

Police recovered the 16th-century gold-plated “Saliera,” or salt cellar, by Florentine master Benvenuto Cellini in January, a day after Mang turned himself in and confessed following the release of photos identifying him as the suspect. Mang has been jailed since his arrest.

Investigators said Mang had led them to the artwork, which was buried in a wooden case in a forest outside the town of Zwettl, about 55 miles north of Vienna. Museum officials have said the object was slightly damaged but was being restored.

Mang testified Thursday that the theft was easy because the museum lacked bulletproof glass and relied on obsolete security cameras and outmoded motion detectors.

His attorney, Richard Soyer, said Mang had been diagnosed with cancer and was going through a painful divorce at the time of the May 2003 heist that caused him to develop an “indifferent” attitude and prompted him to steal the figurine on a whim.

Mang had claimed that the theft was a spontaneous prank he carried out after getting drunk at a Vienna discotheque and scaling construction scaffolding to enter the museum, where he smashed a glass case containing the work. But prosecutors, who compiled an 18-page indictment against Mang, said the heist was meticulously and expertly planned, and that Mang had cased the museum a few weeks beforehand by buying a ticket and walking through as a regular visitor to look for weak security points.

The ornate figurine’s disappearance sparked months of controversy over whether Vienna’s top museums had adequate security.

Museum director Wilfred Seipel acknowledged that security could have been better, though he insisted Thursday that the theft could have been thwarted if guards had paid closer attention to video monitor screens.

The court threw out the extortion charge against Mang, which prosecutors had based on letters he allegedly wrote to the general manager of the Austrian company that had insured the figurine.