Table of Contents
- Do you want to learn about the true story of the world’s most prolific art thief, who stole more than 300 artworks worth two billion dollars, and kept them hidden in his mother’s attic? Do you want to discover how he managed to evade capture for nearly eight years, and what motivated him to risk everything for his passion? If so, you might want to read the book The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession by Michael Finkel.
- In this article, we will provide you with a summary and review of the book, and highlight the main points and takeaways. We will also share some of the stories and examples that the author presents, and how they illustrate the fascinating and complex personality of the art thief. If you are interested in learning more, keep reading!
The Art Thief (2023) is the remarkable true story of a Europe-wide crime spree that lasted over a decade and netted almost two billion in stolen art. Along the way exposing how an enabling family, and international rules of criminal investigation, led to many of the most important works being destroyed.
Introduction: A story of art and crime all the more incredible for being true
It was all the more astonishing for happening so fast. One moment, the historically significant 16th century portrait Madeleine de France was hanging in a prominent area of The Museum of Fine Arts in Blois, France. The next moment, it was not. With guards meeting close by, and roving groups of tourists filtering past regularly, the idea of such a significant historic painting simply disappearing was inconceivable. Still, Madeleine did.
The story of this, and hundreds of art thefts from regional museums throughout Europe in the 1990s, is as enraging for art lovers as it is fascinating for fans of true crime. A perfect storm of entitlement, familial enabling, and law enforcement regulations hampering cross-border investigations, led to countless works being stolen by an unemployed, self-declared aesthete.
In the end, only a fraction of the artworks were ever recovered. The paintings, most of which dated from the Renaissance, were likely even burned. An outcome all the more tragic given the confessed motivation for these crimes was a love of art.
So if you’ve ever been curious about the why behind the great art crimes of history, or twisting tales of the international investigations that must locate and recover the works, listen on.
An unremarkable pair
If you passed Stéphane Breitwieser and his girlfriend, Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus, in a small museum somewhere in Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, or France, you’d likely not remember it. Unmemorable best describes their physical appearance—a mid-20s couple looking quite upscale in their second-hand Chanel or Yves Saint Laurent. They look like any number of European tourists out for an afternoon of leisurely art and culture.
But if you looked closer, you’d notice Anne-Catherine is carrying an oversized bag. And Stéphane is wearing a large overcoat despite the very clement weather. You might even notice, if you were very observant, a slight bulge around the waistband under Stéphane’s overcoat. Or a large shape straining against the sides of Anne-Catherine’s tote.
For years they’ve been visiting regional museums every weekend. The kind that don’t have the funds for security cameras in each room, or extra guards during lunchtimes. They like to visit in the off-season, too, when there are fewer tourists and museums employ a skeleton staff.
They take care to drive several hours away from their modest home in the Alsace region of France, where unemployed Stéphane still lives in his mother’s attic, rent-free. Alsace being on the oft-contested border between France and Germany means that driving a few hours means crossing state and international borders, and with them, police jurisdictions.
Breitwieser’s lifestyle is supported by unemployment benefits and checks from well-off grandparents. In fact, his grandparents bought the car the couple used for these weekend thefts. He asks for the gas money from his mother.
Girlfriend Anne-Catherine is a nursing assistant in their small, suburban town and works during the week. While she works, Stéphane combs auction catalogs and frequents the state library in Strasbourg to research artworks. It is this research that yields the targets for their weekend jaunts.
Which means that those random bulges in their clothing as they calmly make their way to the museum exit might be 18th century pieces of silver, or rare ivory sculptures from the Renaissance. They could be early paintings on copper or ornate flintlock pistols. If the pair are stealing something bigger, like a medieval crossbow or wall-sized tapestry that doesn’t fit into a bag, Stéphane must get creative.
While Anne-Catherine keeps watch for guards, Stéphane will scour the rooms for an exterior window to drop large pieces from. Being sure to scout the exterior ahead looking for shrubs or hedges that will cushion the fall. With these heists, he’ll hike around to recover them later.
They are surprised by how often small and regional museums are barely secured, valuing an intimate experience of the art by the public over the security of the works themselves. It is this public trust that the pair will violate again and again.
Life in a treasure chest
When young Stéphane was first introduced to Anne-Catherine at a high-school birthday party in 1991, it was the first time he felt a passionate interest in another person and not an object. Despite his privileged upbringing by upper-middle class parents with deep ancestral roots in Alsace, Breitwieser always felt disconnected from others.
His most cherished memories were archeological scouting trips on the weekend with his grandfather, whose interest in history was infectious. It was on these trips that Stéphane discovered his love of historic artifacts, pocketing battlefield relics and other minor treasures to bring home to his small valuables chest.
But soon after they met, life changed drastically. Breitwieser’s parents go through an acrimonious divorce. Both mother and son experience a radical downturn in their lifestyle. Gone is the family’s upscale city mansion, furnished with antiques and fine art. Now mother and son occupy a modest stucco home in the suburbs furnished from Ikea.
The couple share the tiny, two-room attic, initially bare with only a small mattress on the floor. Surrounded by bare walls and floors, life for Breitwieser feels empty except for the overwhelming joy he experiences in the presence of certain pieces of art and historic craftsmanship.
It was an early flintlock pistol, replete with carved walnut handle and intricately worked silver inlay, that burst the floodgates of Breitwieser’s passion for acquiring beautiful objects for himself. Objects in museums that he felt were being under-appreciated and admired. Objects that he should own, rightfully, confident as he was that his own passion for them was far greater than anyone else’s.
It was a short summer stint as a museum guard in high school that enlightened him to the many holes in regional museum security. When he noted that this particular flintlock pistol was in an unlocked case, it seemed like fate was taunting him to simply take it. Feeling robbed of the many fine furnishings and artwork his father had taken when he abandoned the family, Breitwieser even argued to Anne-Catherine that by stealing this pistol he’d immediately have an object finer than anything in his father’s collection. The ultimate revenge.
When the theft goes unreported in the local newspaper, Breitwieser is emboldened. With only a Swiss army knife in his pocket and lightning-fast reflexes for spotting opportunity, the couple visit small museums throughout Europe swiping objects to adorn their tiny attic rooms.
On one trip, a security guard notices their strange appearance—Breitwieser has a sword secreted up the arm of his raincoat, and Anne-Catherine has a large sculpture in her bulging bag. But when the couple walk up to him and ask about the museum cafe, his suspicions vanish. Who eats at the museum restaurant if they’re stealing art? No one, he reckons.
That’s how in the course of just a couple of years, the attic rooms of Stéphane and Anne-Catherine are now overflowing with fine art. Every inch is crammed with Renaissance paintings, medieval weapons, ivory sculptures, tapestries, altarpieces, chalices, bejeweled linens, rare coins—as much as a billion dollars worth of rare art.
It is into these rooms that the couple return each weekend with their looted spoils, explaining to Stéphane’s mother that they’ve purchased reproductions from flea markets. She never climbs the stairs or enters their room, either. If she had, she would have instantly grasped the severity of the situation. Her unemployed son and his girlfriend were living in a literal treasure chest.
A slap on the wrist
Filling their treasure chest with pilfered art had emboldened the couple. Now, instead of carefully researching pieces ahead of time, thefts become opportunistic. That’s how Breitwieser discovered that a small card with the words removed for study could easily replace any object in a display case and delay discovery for weeks. The pair acquired an entire display case of historic silver that way.
So on the afternoon that Breitwieser decided to steal from a small commercial gallery in Lucerne, despite the police station being just across the street, he might even have thought of himself as untouchable. He makes it only steps from the gallery with the small work by Dutch master, Willem van Aelst, tucked under his arm like a fresh baguette. When confronted by aggressive gallery security in the street, he can only stammer about not being aware of what he was doing.
And the police, seemingly, believe his sob story of unpremeditated theft brought on by overwhelming admiration. The couple have no criminal record in Switzerland, after all, and he cites his parents’ recent divorce as grounds for a temporary lapse in judgment. The Swiss court believes it, too. His tearful confession to a one-off crime of passion earns the couple a fine and a 3-year ban on entering Switzerland. For Breitwieser, it amounts to no punishment at all.
But for Anne-Catherine, the arrest is more chilling. For years now the willing Bonnie to his Clyde, who reveled in the attic treasure chest, the arrest was a powerful sign of what she’d always assumed would come: arrest and imprisonment. Her attitude about their crimes transforms from willing participation to impatient tolerance overnight.
Her lack of faith in their future together even leads her to seek an abortion when she discovers herself pregnant with Stéphane’s child. She colludes with his own mother to get it while on a road trip to the Netherlands — far away from their small, gossip-ridden town. Despite Anne-Catherine’s medical procedure, and the presence of Stéphane’s mother on the trip, they visit a castle where Breitwieser steals a piece of silver to add to his collection.
Slowly but surely, she’s collected newspaper articles and clippings about their crimes, and knows the police are onto them. Some departments have at last noticed the series of small thefts have been going on across Europe in similar small, out-of-the-way regional museums, or castles housing historic collections that are difficult to secure.
Several investigations have been launched, too. Except that without any of these artworks showing up in shady auction houses, or in back-market channels for less than scrupulous collectors, the investigators have absolutely nothing to go on. A nondescript couple hardly raise suspicion as potential international criminal masterminds. And their ability to project calm even when their clothing is stuffed with rare treasures has foiled almost every attempt to identify them.
That is, of course, until they make themselves too conspicuous not to notice.
While his partner Anne-Catherine became increasingly hesitant over new thefts, she extracted from Stéphane a promise to slow down, be more careful, and wear gloves to avoid leaving evidence. Instead, Breitwieser steps up his activities, now traveling alone multiple times a weekend and stealing hordes of rare objects. Art is now stuffed under the bed and crammed into corners.
The art is suffering, too. Renaissance pieces aren’t meant to be stuffed into humid spaces. Tapestries crumble, paintings warp and crack. Some have been here almost a decade. Still the objects roll in at an astonishing pace. When Breitwieser arrives home one afternoon in 2001 with a bugle stolen from the home of Richard Wagner, now a museum, he immediately confesses he didn’t wear gloves and left fingerprints. When Anne-Catherine learns that the Wagner museum is in Lucerne, she panics.
Oddly enough, the museum had discovered this particular theft almost immediately, and police arrived quickly to dust for fingerprints. When they discovered the prints were the same as ones collected after a small art gallery theft years earlier, red flags spring up in police databases, and the jig is up.
How convenient for the police, then, that Anne-Catherine had convinced Stéphane to return to the museum the following day to clean up the fingerprints. She had just gone inside to wipe up the evidence discretely when a jogger noticed Stéphane lingering outside and alerted authorities. By the time Anne-Catherine emerged again, police were already pulling up to arrest him.
He spent weeks in a basement cell refusing to speak to investigators, but Anne-Catherine hadn’t been arrested. For Breitwieser, this was at first a blessing. She didn’t pay for his crimes. But without her his stoic resolve crumbles and he confesses to everything. Now armed with a search warrant based on Breitwieser’s own statements, detectives arrive at his mother’s home and climb the attic steps.
When they push back the door to the attic rooms, once stuffed with almost two billion dollars in rare art, they find that they are completely empty.
A glint in the water
In the three weeks between Breitwieser’s arrest and the issuing of a search warrant for his mother’s home, no one really knows what happened. Breitwieser’s mother has never spoken about the days after her son’s arrest. Even after being prosecuted for her role in covering up his crimes.
What is known from testimony by Kleinklaus and others is that when police failed to notice Anne-Catherine was with Breitwieser, she immediately drove to his mother’s home to tell her of the arrest. Anne-Catherine would break things off with Stéphane and put this all behind her.
It would appear that Stéphane’s mother, Mireille Stengel, had similar motives when she first entered the attic rooms after her son’s arrest. Undoubtedly now forced to face that the young couple’s so-called flea market finds were rare and priceless stolen works of art, she apparently resolved that none of it would be found to implicate her child.
Just a week after Breitwieser’s arrest a retiree strolling along the Rhône-Rhine Canal in eastern Alsace spots a glint of something shiny. Curious, he returned the next day to pull a silver chalice from the murky water. By the time investigators were done with the scene, divers had pulled millions in historic artworks out of the canal. Breitwieser’s hoard, or part of it at least, had been found.
Investigators invited Stengel to Switzerland to inquire about still missing paintings, none of which were in the canal. Even Stéphane is astonished when she asserts that there were no paintings. Priceless works like Madeleine de France, to this day, have never been recovered. It is believed that Mireille Stengel burned them in a bonfire somewhere in the countryside.
For their crimes, Breitwieser served only a few years in prison — European law heavily favors light sentences for crimes without violence. The worth of objects, cultural or otherwise, is not considered in sentencing. During his time in prison Breitwieser reconnected with his father, who felt remorse for abandoning his son. Stéphane plays into this narrative, claiming everything was motivated by passion for art.
That is until he is arrested for shoplifting from a high-end boutique to celebrate his release from prison, and goes back almost immediately.
One of the most successful art theft crime sprees in history went almost unnoticed and uninvestigated while it was happening. Through a combination of entitlement, familial enabling, and co-dependence bordering on folie-a-deux, almost 2 billion dollars worth of art and objects were stolen from museums around Europe and became the furnishings for a young couple’s rent-free attic rooms in suburban Alsace. When discovered, the thief’s own mother covered for her son leading to the tragic loss of priceless cultural heritage, in crimes that went unpunished to this day.
About the Author
True Crime, Art, History, Biography, Psychology, Thriller, Nonfiction, Mystery, Culture, Adventur
The book is based on the true story of Stéphane Breitwieser, the world’s most prolific art thief, who stole more than 300 objects from museums and cathedrals all over Europe, worth an estimated two billion dollars. The book reveals how Breitwieser, along with his girlfriend who worked as his lookout, carried out more than 200 heists over nearly eight years, using his remarkable athleticism, cunning, and knowledge of art. The book also explores Breitwieser’s strange and obsessive personality, and his motivation for stealing. Unlike most thieves, he never sold or displayed his treasures, but kept them in a secret room in his mother’s attic, where he could admire them privately. The book also recounts how Breitwieser’s criminal career came to an end, when he was caught stealing a painting in Switzerland, and how his mother destroyed most of his collection in a panic. The book also examines the impact of Breitwieser’s thefts on the art world, and the efforts to recover and restore the stolen artworks.
The book is a captivating and thrilling read, that combines journalism, history, and psychology, to tell the story of one of the most extraordinary and notorious art thieves in history. The author writes with clarity, humor, and suspense, and draws from his extensive interviews with Breitwieser, his girlfriend, his mother, and the investigators and experts who tracked him down. The book is well-researched and detailed, and each chapter focuses on a different aspect of Breitwieser’s life and crimes, such as his childhood, his methods, his love affairs, his escapes, his arrest, and his trial. The book is not only informative, but also fascinating, and provides a glimpse into the mind and world of a man who was driven by a dangerous obsession with beauty and art. The book is suitable for anyone who enjoys true-crime stories, art history, and psychological profiles.