Frenchman Stéphane Breitwieser was an art junkie, and to get his fix, he stole some 239 works of art with an estimated value of a whopping $2 billion — from as many as 200 museums all over Europe.
One of the valuable pieces was the old master painting “Sybille, Princess of Cleves,” by the artist Lucas Cranach the Elder, painted in 1526 and stolen from the New Castle in Baden-Baden, Germany.
All Breitwieser wanted to do with the valuable pieces he stole was to bizarrely display them in what he considered his own personal Louvre — the small, cramped attic of his mother’s modest home in the industrial city of Mulhouse, in Eastern France, where he lived with his sweetheart.
“No tobacco or caffeine, no alcohol except a sip of wine . . . and never marijuana or anything harder. But a pure dose of art can set his head to spinning,” writes Michael Finkel in “The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession” (Knopf).
“To him, beauty is the world’s only true currency — the person with the most beauty is, therefore, the richest. He has sometimes considered himself one of the wealthiest people alive.”
Breitwieser was in his 20s when he stole the art, mostly during a grand theft tour of France, Holland, Switzerland, Germany, and Austria from 1994 to 2001.
He mainly stole from museums and was accompanied by his girlfriend and accomplice, Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus.
His passion for art was gluttonous; it excited him emotionally and even sexually to touch it.
“So many great works of art are sexually arousing that what you’ll also want to do is install a bed nearby for when your partner is there and the timing is right,” Breitwieser told the author.
The art thief imagined he suffered from a bizarre illness called Stendhal Syndrome, during which he experienced symptoms of dizziness, and heart palpitations that set his head to start spinning when he saw the art he wanted to possess.
But while Breitwieser claimed that “art is my drug,” the author disagrees.
“What Breitwieser is really addicted to . . . is stealing,” writes Finkel. “He’s a glorified shoplifter, he’s a kleptomaniac.”
But he was a very savvy and shrewd kleptomaniac.
Breitwieser was able to free paintings he had chosen to liberate from museums using a common everyday carry device, a Swiss Army knife. Once free, he would slip the artwork inside his pants (assuming the painting wasn’t oversized.)
“What Breitwieser is really addicted to . . . is stealing. He’s a glorified shoplifter, he’s a kleptomaniac.”Author Michael Finkel
On one occasion, he went a bit overboard on his haul from a museum.
He stuffed his backpack, filled his overcoat, and even made a bulge in his trousers with a valuable teapot, six silver cups, a cutlery set in a wooden case, and two serving spoons.
In this manner, Breitwieser’s tiny family attic became “less a room in the Louvre than the world’s most valuable junkyard.”
Breitwieser was a master at planning his heists.
He’d target a specific work he had seen in an artist’s catalog, or by simply strolling a museum or gallery.
Always, he was accompanied by his chic, tastefully dressed girlfriend, sporting vintage Dior or Chanel, while he had the preppy button-down shirt look.
Plus his trusty Swiss Army knife was loaded with gadgets.
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They usually chose lunchtime as the best time to commit their crimes, according to the author, scoping out security cameras, the placement of security guards, and the best escape routes.
She stood guard while he found his desired work of art, and made himself appear like any other tourist — “all meant to connote serene contemplation, even while his heart is revving with excitement and fear,” writes Finkel.
But luck eventually runs out — and one day, Breitwieser’s time was finally up.
Nabbed for stealing a bugle in November 2001, he was jailed.
It was a minor charge.
But a police inspector suspected that Breitwieser was more of a serial art thief and that his loot might be far more extensive and valuable than a horn.
He obtained a search warrant for Breitwieser’s mother’s house, where he still lived.
But the inspector was shocked when he searched the place and found the walls — presumably once lined with valuable paintings — now bare.
As it turned out, Breitwieser’s mother had actually gotten rid of her son’s stolen treasures — throwing most of the objects into the Rhone-Rhine Canal, in eastern Alsace.
She tossed other pieces in a ditch near the German border, some in a forest — and some, she burned.
Breitwieser served three years and seven months in prison for his thefts in France and Switzerland. Once released, he shoplifted clothing only to be jailed again, before eventually returning to his art theft fetish.
He moved to a small place near his grandparents’ farmhouse in Alsace in northeastern France, where he lived on government assistance.
When his mother bought him another car, he began driving to assorted Alsatian museums from which he hadn’t yet stolen.
He was arrested again when trying to fence the newly pilfered artworks on eBay.
His latest trial was in April 2023, for which he was sentenced to house arrest. He now wears an ankle monitor and will be in the penal system until he’s 60, in 2031.
“I was a master of the universe,” Finkel quotes him as saying. “Now I’m nothing.”