Kurt Lidtke's Killer Cough

The strange excuse hacked up by an art dealer-turned-thief.

Last Friday, former art dealer Kurt Lidtke was sentenced to four years in prison for masterminding a notorious Seattle art theft, a burglary which Lidtke's lawyer claims was prompted by his client's devastating addiction to cough syrup. Lidtke had already pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy and transporting stolen property after admitting to helping steal 13 paintings and a sculpture from a Seattle home. The victim, ID'd only as D.B., was paid $152,000 by her insurer for the loss, which included paintings by Northwest School expressionists Morris Graves and Mark Tobey. All of D.B.'s stolen works were recovered except one, a painting by modernist Fay Chong valued at $75,000, for which Lidtke was also ordered to pay restitution. Court records referring to D.B. are sealed, as are the names of five other Seattle art collectors who were also targeted. But the FBI says that Lidtke hoped to steal at least $400,000 worth of works from one of them, whose total collection is valued at more than $1 million, and prosecutors insist Lidtke used his knowledge of the art world to gain his victim's trust. According to a sentencing memorandum, D.B. had once invited Lidtke into her home to appraise her art collection. Similarly, other victims and potential victims had purchased art from Lidtke and allowed him to visit their homes as well. The D.B. heist was pulled off by Jerry Christy, Lidtke's ex-prison cellmate and go-to guy. Lidtke, with his experience as a Seattle gallery owner, picked the residences and Christy did the grunt work. Christy is still awaiting sentencing. At the time of the 2009 theft, Lidtke was just finishing a three-year stretch for nine counts of first-degree theft, having stolen $435,000 in receipts from the sale of paintings consigned at his once-popular Pioneer Square art gallery two years earlier. So how did Lidtke go from being a respected dealer to a thief? In his sentencing memo, Lidtke's lawyer Ralph Hurvitz says it all began when his client started hitting the hard stuff. "The downward spiral for Mr. Lidtke began with his increasing use of, and subsequent addiction to, cough syrup," wrote Hurvitz. "His brand of choice was Robitussin. He began drinking cough syrup in 2003. By the time of his arrest, his consumption level was between three and four bottles per day." In asking a federal judge for a 31-month sentence, Hurvitz also sought to minimize his client's role in the crimes, arguing that the actual thefts were handled by Christy and his wife Georgia, who also was charged. But prosecutors fought back, writing that rather than accept responsibility for his actions, Lidtke was "entirely cavalier" about the crimes and "flippantly chose to blame the Department of Corrections for housing him with Christy." In the end, the judge decided to split the difference between what Hurvitz wanted—less than three years—and what the government asked for, five. Hearing his sentence, Lidtke broke down in tears. "I feel horrible," he said. The same can't be said for the local artists in the audience who had come to watch Lidtke be put away, who looked anything but.

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