One artist’s trash is another man’s €60,000 (£51,488) art collection according to an administrative court in Cologne, Germany.

The man in question was passing the artist Gerhard Richter’s villa in Cologne in July 2016 when he spotted something remarkable in the recycling bin. Four postcard-sized photographs overpainted with oil, which the artist had apparently thrown out. The man removed the pictures from Richter’s trash and attempted to sell them at a Munich auction house. When the auction house demanded a certificate of authenticity, the man presented three of the works to the head of the Gerhard Richter Archive in Dresden for verification.

The archive’s director, Dietmar Elger, recognised the works as Richter’s but became suspicious because they were unsigned and the artist would never allow his work to leave his studio unsigned. On Wednesday 24 April, a Cologne district court judge ruled that the works, although unsigned, still had value and fined the defendant €3,150 (£2,704) for stealing them.

When questioned by police, the art thief claimed that the recycling bin in which he found the works had been knocked over by a storm and he was simply trying to do a good deed by cleaning up waste paper in the street. He further claimed he had attempted to return the works to Richter but received no response.

Judge Katharina Potthoff ruled that “even if the works were lying next to the recycling bin, they were still the artist’s property”. It did not matter that Richter wanted to dispose of them. She also valued the works at an estimated €60,000 (£51,488). The defendant told the court that he did not consider himself a “thief or a criminal”.

Richter said he found the whole episode “annoying”. He was not concerned to punish the defendant, only to see the works destroyed “as originally intended” because he thought they were not good enough.