Despite its title, journalist Michael Finkel’s new book The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession (Knopf) isn’t only about art crime. It’s also about addiction, the compulsion to continue doing things that you know are bad for you. Surrounding yourself with art, it turns out, can be one of them.
The book’s protagonist, Stéphane Breitwieser, was hooked on visiting regional museums in his native France and in Switzerland. His souvenirs weren’t trinkets from the gift shop but artworks themselves, plucked from Plexiglas cases, walls, and curated displays. His loot ranged from a centuries-old tapestry to a Jan Brueghel the Elder painting; he stole most of it in plain sight.
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One of his many heists took place in 1996, when, with his girlfriend Anne-Catherine Kleinklauss, he visited the Alexis Forel Museum in Morges, Switzerland, where he stole a 300-year-old platter by Charles-François Hannong. Breitwieser was deft at undoing the gadgetry of display cases. Using a Swiss Army Knife, he reached what Finkel calls his “screw apotheosis,” undoing 30 of them.
Finkel describes this theft and countless others in present tense. You are there, experiencing the thrill of the chase alongside Breitwieser. “Twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twenty-nine. And, mercy, thirty,” Finkel writes of the screws. One can almost hear the case popping open, so vivid is the description. Much of The Art Thief unfolds in this way.
Not many pages later, again with Anne-Catherine, Breitwieser is described visiting the Museum of Fine Arts in Angers the year after. He came across the copper painting attributed to Brueghel, Allegory of Autumn, in which a muscular man plucks fruit from a tree while buxom women and a child surround him, and decided he had to have it.
“Anne-Catherine positions herself at the stairwell,” Finkel writes, adhering to Breitwieser’s preferred “blend of one last name and one first” for himself and Kleinklauss. “She’ll cough if the guard takes his eyes off the cashier. Breitwieser climbs a chair, gloves on, and retrieves the work. He slides the frame under a display, and Anne-Catherine returns to wipe down the chair with her handkerchief, eliminating shoe prints too.” As they left, they bid goodbye to guard and a cashier sharing a kiss.
Spoiler alert: Breitwieser did eventually get caught for theft of these and 200-plus other art objects, and then he got caught again and again for other thefts afterward.
After serving two prison sentences (one for the thefts of the ’90s, the other for ones committed in the mid-2000s following his initial discharge), Breitwieser returned to his passion upon his second release. Between 2015 and 2016, he stole Roman coins from an archaeological museum in Strasbourg and paperweights from another nearby institution, and then traveled to Germany, where the plundering continued. “None of these,” Finkel reports, “are pieces he loves.” He was arrested once more in 2019.
How do we get from clandestine thief to sad-sack stealer? The Art Thief charts Breitwieser’s rise and fall in an attempt to account for his obsession. It’s mostly rise, very little fall, which is probably by design, since Finkel seems enamored of Breitwieser.
“I never found any art thieves who really compare to Breitwieser and Anne-Catherine,” Finkel writes of his research in the afterword, the only section penned in the past tense. “Nearly everybody else did it for money, or stole a single work of art. The couple is an anomaly among art stealers, but there does exist a group of criminals for whom long-term looting in service of aesthetic desire is common.”
Finkel locates the source of Breitwieser’s aesthetic desire in a childhood trip to the very Strasbourg museum from which he pilfered the Roman coins. “His finger snagged on a loose bit of metal attached to a Roman coffin,” Finkel says. “A coin-sized piece of lead broke off in his palm. He stuffed it reflexively into his pocket.”
This sounds like an awful tidy bit of myth-making, especially since it’s not easily verified, but Finkel presents it as truth. Even if it is apocryphal, that the narrative was put forward at all by Breitwieser is telling.
Breitwieser’s magnetism lay in his ability to make people believe he was a normal person doing sensible things—that he was just an average unemployed joe with a fondness for museums. This was a ruse. He reportedly even corrected a curator on the date of a 17th-century sword that he stole during one of his trials; he said he knew this because he’d read up on similar weapons in the library of the Kunstmuseum Basel.
At the very least, Breitwieser had a discerning eye. A typical person may not march into Sotheby’s and decide she must have a small Lucas Cranach the Younger painting. Yet Breitwieser did just this and, to mark his 24th birthday, managed to pick up a Plexiglas dome that held this work, sandwich the small painting between the pages of a catalogue, and secret it out of the auction house during public viewing hours. That painting wound up in the attic of Breitwieser’s mother’s house, where he slept amid all the other works he stole.
The jig was up on November 20, 2001, when, at the Wagner Museum in Lucerne, Switzerland, Breitwieser stowed a 400-year-old bugle beneath his Hugo Boss trench coat. He was arrested, instrument still in tow. It wasn’t the first time the Swiss police had detained him in connection with an art heist, but the last time, he got away with it. This time, he wasn’t so lucky. He was ultimately sentenced to three years in prison.
Finkel seems to believe Breitwieser every step of the way, even when a healthy bit of skepticism is needed. He doesn’t appear to feel quite the same way about Anne-Catherine, who has alleged that Breitwieser abused her, both emotionally and physically, and that he “tormented” her into aiding in his thefts. Finkel does recount one time that Breitwieser hit Anne-Catherine, but by the time she is on the stand, claiming in 2004 that she “didn’t even know he stole art,” Finkel remarks that “Anne-Catherine had stretched the truth, seemingly past snapping, by issuing blanket denials.”
Facts are elusive in The Art Thief, and not only in the places you’d expect. This romanticized account of Breitwieser’s thefts glides over particulars such as the value of the works stolen. Authorities have claimed that Breitwieser obtained well over $1 billion in art, a figure that mysteriously balloons to $2 billion at points in The Art Thief. This is tough to believe because Finkel generally doesn’t provide valuations for individual works. If only Finkel lavished as much attention on these specifics as he did on the screws that bound the cases for each work Breitwieser accessed.
There are also more basic errors, like one in which Finkel states that Pablo Picasso was detained by the French police in connection with the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa. Actually, it was the poet Guillaume Apollinaire who was detained and later cleared. That Finkel was reportedly fired from the New York Times in 2002 for creating a composite profile subject out of multiple interviews doesn’t help his credibility.
But The Art Thief is really meant more as tasteful pulp than it is as deeply researched non-fiction. At just over 200 pages, it does succeed as a refined beach read that even will engender some of the same questions that good mysteries do.
Why, for example, did Breitwieser do it? It’s true that unlike most art thieves, Breitwieser made few attempts to sell the artworks, which he mostly saved for himself. It’s also true that he did little damage as he took them, except to the works themselves. Some were tossed out windows by Breitwieser, others may have been later destroyed by Breitwieser’s mother, who also received prison time. A number were never recovered.
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Because Breitwieser isn’t like most other art thieves, he presents an interesting case. Across the years, analysts have been called in to psychologize both him and Anne-Catherine. (Finkel fails to mention that she did end up receiving a six-month prison sentence for handling stolen goods, instead reporting that she spent “exactly one night in jail” and that the conviction was expunged, “as if nothing had happened during her decade with Breitwieser.”) Breitwieser was determined by one to be “impulsive”; Anne-Catherine lacked “the strength to say no,” according to another. Yet Breitwieser, as one psychotherapist suggests, can’t really be helped because “there’s no criminal psychosis to treat or to cure.”
Whatever the case may be, Breitwieser did make some attempts to absolve himself for the sins he wrought upon museums across France, Germany, and Switzerland. He apologized to curators at trial, and in the book’s final pages, left with little money to his name, he seems to finally express some remorse. “I was a master of the universe,” Breitwieser remarks toward the book’s end. “Now I’m nothing.”