Vienna thief faces trial for stealing $65 million figurine

A man accused of stealing a Renaissance figurine that is worth 50 million euro (US$65 million) from Vienna's prestigious Art History Museum faced trial Thursday after three years of arrest, bringing to a climax the nation's most spectacular art heist, AP reports.

Robert Mang, an alarm systems expert, faces up to 10 years' imprisonment if convicted of the May 2003 theft and a charge of attempted extortion for allegedly threatening to destroy the prized work unless up to 10 million euro (US$13 million) in ransom was paid.

Prosecutors allege that Mang, 50, confessed to the crime, and his lawyer has not challenged allegations of his client's guilt.

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 following investigators' release of photos identifying him as the suspect. Mang has been jailed since his arrest.

In an 18-page indictment, prosecutors say Mang wrote a letter to the general manager of the Uniqa insurance company, which had ensured the figurine, and that he allegedly enclosed a few fragments of the sculpture to prove he was holding it and meant business.

Authorities say the theft itself was meticulously planned: Mang allegedly cased the museum to look for weak security points by walking through as a regular visitor a few weeks before the heist.

Police said Mang led them to the artwork, which was buried in a wooden case in the town of Zwettl, about 90 kilometers (55 miles) north of Vienna. Since then, he allegedly has claimed the theft was a prank he carried out after getting drunk at a Vienna discotheque and scaling construction scaffolding to enter the museum.

The ornate figurine's disappearance sparked an uproar and triggered months of heated debate over whether Vienna's top museums had adequate security.

Museum officials said the object was slightly damaged but was being restored.