Frenchman Stéphane Breitwieser was an art junkie, and to push his limits, he stole around 239 works of art – valued at an estimated whopping $2 billion – from as many as 200 museums across Europe.
One of the valuable pieces was the old master painting “Sybille, Prinzessin von Kleve” by the artist Lucas Cranach the Elder. Ä., which was painted in 1526 and stolen from the New Palace in Baden-Baden.
All Breitwieser wanted to do with the valuable pieces he had stolen was display them in a bizarre way in his personal Louvre – the small, cramped attic of his mother’s modest home in the industrial city of Mulhouse in eastern France, where he lived his darling.
“No tobacco or caffeine, no alcohol except for a sip of wine. . . and never marijuana or anything harder. But a pure dose of art can turn his head,” writes Michael Finkel in “The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession” (Knopf).
“For him, beauty is the only true currency in the world – the person with the greatest beauty is therefore the richest. He has at times considered himself one of the richest people in the world.”
Breitwieser was in his 20s when he stole the artwork, mainly during a major theft tour of France, Holland, Switzerland, Germany and Austria from 1994 to 2001.
He mainly stole from museums and was accompanied by his friend and accomplice Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus.
His passion for art was voracious; it excited him emotionally and even sexually to touch it.
“So many great works of art are sexually arousing that when your partner is around and the timing is right, you’ll also want to put a bed nearby,” Breitwieser told the author.
The art thief revealed he had a bizarre condition called Stendhal Syndrome, which left him with dizziness and heart palpitations that made his head spin when he saw the art he wanted to own.
But while Breitwieser claimed that “art is my drug,” the author disagrees.
“Which Breitwieser is really addicted to. . . is theft,” writes Finkel. “He’s a glorified shoplifter, he’s a kleptomaniac.”
But he was a very smart and clever kleptomaniac.
Breitwieser was able to liberate paintings he wanted to liberate from museums using an everyday carrying device, a Swiss army knife. Once free, he tucked the artwork into his pants (assuming the painting wasn’t oversized).
Once he overdid it a bit with his loot from a museum.
He stuffed his backpack, stuffed his coat, and even made a bulge in his pants with a prized teapot, six silver cups, a set of cutlery in a wooden box, and two serving spoons.
In this way, Breitwieser’s tiny family attic became “less a room in the Louvre than the most valuable junkyard in the world”.
Breitwieser was a master at planning his heists.
He aimed at a specific work he had seen in an artist’s catalog or was simply strolling through a museum or gallery.
He was always accompanied by his chic, tastefully dressed girlfriend who wore vintage clothing from Dior or Chanel while sporting the preppy button-down shirt look.
Also, his trusty Swiss army knife was loaded with gadgets.
According to the author, they typically chose midday as the best time to commit their crimes by scouting surveillance cameras, security personnel placement, and the best escape routes.
She stood guard while he found his desired artwork and made herself appear like any other tourist—”everything was meant to symbolize serene contemplation, even as his heart races with excitement and fear,” writes Finkel.
But at some point luck runs out – and one day Breitwieser’s time was finally up.
He was arrested and imprisoned in November 2001 for stealing a bugle.
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 larger and more 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 that the walls – thought to have once been lined with valuable paintings – were now bare.
As it turned out, Breitwieser’s mother had indeed disposed of her son’s stolen treasures, throwing most of the items into the Rhone-Rhine canal in eastern Alsace.
She threw other pieces in a ditch near the German border, some in a forest – and burned others.
Breitwieser was imprisoned for three years and seven months for his thefts in France and Switzerland. After his release, he stole clothes but was jailed again before eventually resuming his art theft fetish.
He moved to a small town near his grandparents’ farmhouse in Alsace, north-eastern France, where he lived on government support.
When his mother bought him another car, he started driving to various Alsatian museums where he hadn’t stolen before.
He was arrested again trying to hedge the newly stolen artworks on eBay.
His last trial took place in April 2023, for which he was sentenced to house arrest. He now wears an ankle monitor and will be in prison until he turns 60 in 2031.
“I was a master of the universe,” Finkel quotes him as saying. “Now I’m nothing.”