I’ve eagerly awaited The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession, Michael Finkel’s book on Stéphane Breitwieser, who stole several billion dollars worth of art from more than 150 museums before he was caught in 2001. I make a brief appearance in the book, since Finkel interviewed me about the psychology of art thieves. I thought I knew the story of how Breitwieser and his girlfriend lived in a bedroom stuffed full of art, upstairs from his (supposedly) oblivious mother. But Finkel’s extensive interviews with Breitwieser and other major players have revealed many new aspects of the case. When I finally sat down with the book, I didn’t stop until I finished it.
Finkel has written both a true crime page-turner and a surprising meditation on just what it is we hope to get from art, whether we’re spending millions, visiting a museum, or loosening the screws in a display case. I called him up, and we talked about museum collections formed through theft, the peepshow as a possible ideal model for experiencing paintings, and what happens when your interview subject starts crying.
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This interview has been edited and condensed.
Erin Thompson: Why were you drawn to Breitwieser’s story?
Michael Finkel: I had done a book about a murderer, so I’m kind of finished with violence. I was intrigued by Breitwieser’s claim that he stole for love, without selling anything. The story is not just about the thefts; there’s a love story shot through the middle of it. That combination of action and emotion is like pure journalistic catnip. And I knew that many readers are fascinated by the art world, and here’s a guy who seems to thumb his nose at it. No matter how much you dislike Breitwieser, there’s something inspiring about his way of looking at art.
ET: While reading, I kept finding myself agreeing with Breitwieser on so many things, including that it’s wonderful to look as closely as possible at art. I’m always getting scolded by guards for getting too near the art, even though I’ve developed a special art-viewing pose with my hands clasped behind my back to show I have no intent of touching!
MF: This isn’t in the book, but Breitwieser claimed there’s an olfactory component of experiencing some really old works of art. He liked to almost push his nose right against the work. I both thought that this was a terrible thing to do and agreed with him that it would be wonderful.
I perhaps once rubbed my fingers very lightly on the edge of a painting by Peter Paul Rubens, encouraged by Breitwieser. In fact, he guided my hand there, and it was like an electric shock went through my fingers. I could feel every ridge of every stroke. It was very compelling.
ET: I’ve written about how collectors often weave their appreciation of their artworks into their love life, for example by contemplating art together with their lovers, as Breitwieser and his girlfriend did from their four-poster bed. But I’m always surprised by how few critics and scholars write about the intermingling of collecting and sex. Why did you decide to address this topic?
MF: Breitwieser reintroduced me to the idea of how sensual art can be. He thinks the average person loses the ability to see a work of art after the age of, like, 10. We approach an artwork that’s clearly supposed to be erotic — or let’s just say sexy — and we start intellectualizing right away. We ignore the emotion. But Breitwieser’s approach to art is to lead with the heart and follow with the head. When he walks through museums, paintings that were meant to be erotic arouse him. Paintings of war that were meant to be horrific horrify him. Shouldn’t everybody be able to encounter art this way? But very few people seem to be able to do this.
Half the Renaissance paintings we have — well, the ones that aren’t religious or war scenes — are shot through with eroticism. It makes me want follow Breitwieser’s example of having a four-poster bed in a private art viewing room! Very few people are asking me about this strand of the book. I think they’re a little embarrassed.
ET: Was Breitwieser embarrassed, or was he the one that brought up the topic of the erotic experience of art?
MF: He brought it up. We were standing in front of a painting of Venus at the Rubens House Museum and he asked me, “Mike, what do you see here?” I started to talk about color or some other bullshit intellectualizing. “Stop,” he said. “Let’s just erase everything in your mind. What do you really see?” He told me to look at her body. He told me to look at her — well, he was using a French slang word. I think the best English translation would be “boobies.”
And I did, and I felt strangely, wonderfully foolish. I realized how right he was. I realized that I’d been looking at so many paintings wrong for such a long time.
ET: Has talking with Breitwieser changed how you visit museums?
MF: In a perfect world, a museum would have maybe one painting on a wall, with a couple of couches. We’d sit on a couch with our date or our family and talk amongst ourselves. Maybe even have a snack while we’re sitting there.
Instead, now when I’m walking through a museum, I get overwhelmed so quickly. So many things are coming at you — there’s so much to look at. My senses get so jangly that it’s difficult to focus on one work. Recently, I was in the Musée d’Orsay. I wanted to see one van Gogh, but there was a room of 20 of them, and I found it hard to focus on any of them. I kind of get the feeling that you’re not that different.
ET: I do love spending an hour looking at a single artwork. But I want to choose which one it is. I want the 20 van Goghs on the wall so I can pick which one to stare at!
MF: I just had an idea for how I would really like to see art in a museum. You’re on your couch and there’s a painting. When you’re ready to experience something else, you press a button and another one comes sliding through. You had me talking about eroticism, so now I’m reimagining the museum as little private viewing booths.
ET: A peepshow!
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MF: I can’t believe where I’m going in this interview.
ET: How else has your experience of museums changed since meeting Breitwieser?
MF: I used to go for the “big daddy” museums. But now I love the smaller, more out of the way museums, where there’s like a display of the sewing machines they used during World War I or something. You start to look at that and suddenly you find something extraordinarily spectacular. Breitwieser spoke frequently of the appeal of the intertwining of art and place in these local museums. For example, you see objects that were in some revolution or another, or maybe some trophy that Napoleon awarded this town.
ET: Speaking of Napoleon, when reading The Art Thief I began to think that while in some ways Breitwieser’s story is nearly unique, in other ways it echoes the way many great museum collections were formed from colonial-era takings, conquest, or other unwilling transfers. Do you think Breitwieser had some of the same motivations as, say, Napoleon, who stole art to show his power?
MF: Yes, absolutely. Like Napoleon, like the British Museum, like all the other people that went out in the field and stole whatever they wanted from Greece, Egypt, or other countries, Breitwieser stole because he wanted to show that he was better. That he was the true aesthete, the real curatorial genius, that his collection was better than his father’s. I think the reason why he spoke to me for so long is that he has a huge ego and wanted to make his case about who he was.
He also believed he was rescuing unloved art from museums. When he fell in love with a work, he felt he had a unique connection with it, and therefore it had to come home with him to his attic lair. As crazy as it sounds, there was this little wire of truth running through the whole rest of his ridiculous story, because he wasn’t 100% wrong — although it would be a disaster if everybody thought like him. The last thing I need is for museums to have armed guards, with us looking through paintings behind bars. It would send me into a tailspin of depression.
ET: I won’t give spoilers by disclosing what happened to the artworks stolen by Breitwieser, other than saying the story takes a tragic turn. Do you think he anticipated their fate?
MF: I don’t believe that Breitwieser for a second thought that would happen. I’m a journalist, so I’ve been lied to frequently, but I didn’t find him to be a liar. In fact, he seemed to conduct interviews in the same highly emotional way he walks through museums. He frequently cried in front of me, both when we were standing in front of paintings but also while recalling things he had stolen. He would conjure them up in his mind’s eye and tears would start leaking out. But I never got the impression that he was putting on a show.