Swiss museum cashier pockets more than $1 million in yearslong scam

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Swiss museum cashier pockets more than $1 million in yearslong scam
The Fondation Beyeler, designed by Renzo Piano. Photo: Mark Niedermann

by Christopher F. Schuetze

BERLIN.- For this museum heist, every little bit counted.

A court in Switzerland convicted a museum cashier on Friday of stealing almost 1 million Swiss francs by pocketing entry fees paid by visitors at the Beyeler Foundation, a prestigious art museum outside Basel.

The court heard that the 54-year-old woman — whose name was not released for privacy reasons, as is typical in Switzerland — had used a number of tricks to skim 986,000 Swiss francs, more than $1.1 million, from the ticket office between 2008 and 2019, when she was caught and fired.

“Most likely, you would have continued like this if you hadn’t been found out,” the presiding judge, Marcia Stucki, said when announcing the verdict Friday, according to the Basler Zeitung, a local newspaper.

The court sentenced the woman to three years and seven months in prison and a $3,600 fine. She is also responsible for repaying the museum what she stole, although it is unclear to what extent that money can be recovered.

The cashier used a number of schemes to circumvent internal controls and avoid suspicion.

In some cases, she sold emergency tickets, which the museum had on hand in case the computer system went down, for cash, which she pocketed.

She also worked out a ruse by which she could sell a single ticket twice — once by handing out the actual ticket, and a second time by passing across the receipt and claiming the ticket printer was not working — allowing her to pocket the difference.

Her most brazen ploy — the one that finally led to her getting caught in 2019 — was to simply cancel tickets sold by her colleagues and pocket the refunds. During her short trial last week, a colleague confirmed that he recognized the cashier’s handwriting on a significant number of canceled tickets, which ultimately led the museum to zero in on her during an internal review.

According to the Basel public attorney’s office, which analyzed the woman’s bank account history, she would take as much as $170,000 a year. She started stealing in August 2008, authorities believe, months after she was first hired, and continued after she was promoted to manage the museum’s cashiers in 2012.

Tickets at the Beyeler Foundation, one of Switzerland’s most visited museums, cost nearly $29 for a regular adult — expensive by European standards, but close to what is now regarded as the “new normal” for major museums in the United States. The museum attracted 364,000 visitors last year; it is currently showing a major Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition.

The thefts amounted to about 1% of total income from ticket sales, the museum said.

During the trial the cashier seemed unrepentant, according to the Basler Zeitung.

Stucki said that the amount of money the woman stole showed “a high level of criminal energy.” That was also evident in “the insolence and indifference that you are displaying here,” the judge added, according to another local news source.

Dorothee Dines, a spokesperson for the museum, said in an email, “We welcome the fact that the court has now issued a verdict, thereby providing clarification.”

Noting that the museum had added safeguards to its ticketing routines, Dines said the matter was now closed.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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