“International art thief” evokes images of glamorous heists starring, say, Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones, or high intrigue à la Last Seen, the excellent podcast from WBUR about the 1990 heist the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, which remains the biggest art theft in history — but in truth, the majority of art theft takes place on a small scale and under rather banal circumstances. Case in point, the recent arrest of serial art thief Stéphane Breitwieser, who stole and sold nearly 250 pieces of art and artifacts, mostly by picking them up and walking out with them while his girlfriend kept watch — and then gave a great number of them to his mother for safekeeping.
In addition to earning a healthy living via black market art trade, Breitweiser built a prodigious private collection of his own, with objects taken from 172 galleries, auction houses, and museums in Switzerland, France, and Germany, among other places. He is one of the most prolific art thieves on modern record, and the overall worth of the items he’s stolen is set at $1.4 billion dollars by some estimates.
Though arrested in 2001, and later serving two of his three-year prison sentence, Breitwieser has proven to be an unapologetic recidivist, as he was arrested again this week. Authorities had been surveilling the thief since 2016 when he listed a 19th-century paperweight for sale on eBay. Some 100 of the art objects stolen by Breitwieser between 1995-2001 were destroyed by his mother, in an effort to minimize the evidence against him; the woman is thought to have thrown away dozens of paintings and drawings, dumped more than a hundred works into a canal, in an outrageous act of motherly love. Apparently, due to her devout faith, Breitwieser’s mother chose to abandon a Medieval sculpture of the Virgin Mary in a remote chapel rather than destroying it, though it must be noted that her piety did not include adherence to every single one of the ten commandments.
In 2006, Breitwieser capitalized on his spotty past with the publication of his autobiography, Confessions d’un Voleur d’Art (Confessions Of An Art Thief). With this recent crime spree, perhaps, like many shoplifters, Breitwieser just couldn’t shake the love of the game, or perhaps he was looking for material to write a sequel; in either case, he has been arrested again in his native region of Alsace. In addition to the paperweight that was listed on eBay, he is connected to other objects stolen from the crystalware museum in Saint Louis. At his house in the city of Marmoutier, police discovered Roman coins from an archeological museum and other pieces from local and German galleries. Additionally, €163,000 (~184,000) in cash was hidden at his mother’s home, which again appeared to present no kind of moral conundrum for her.
Presumably, institutions all over the continent will be breathing sighs of relief at the notion that this ongoing threat to the sanctity of their collections will soon be off the street again; perhaps this time authorities will see fit to sentence him more stringently. Meanwhile, unencumbered by any ostensible lack of remorse, one imagines Breitwieser is keeping himself busy envisioning who will play him once he sells the movie rights. Maybe Sean Connery is free?
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.