In Brief

World’s Most Successful Art Thief Told His Secrets in a GQ Interview

Unmotivated by profit, Stéphane Breitwieser stole over a billion dollars worth of art and artifacts to fill his obsessive treasure trove, which he stored away in an attic.

“Double Portrait of Elector John Frederick of Saxony and His wife Sibylle of Cleve,” which was stolen by Stéphane Breitwieser and presumably destroyed (via Wikimedia Commons)

As the saying goes, do what you love for a living and you’ll never work a day in your life. But in the case of the world’s most successful art thief, Stéphane Breitwieser, it might better be said, steal what you love and you’ll make headlines, but never a living. As a comprehensive story published last week by Michael Finkel for GQ reveals, Breitwieser, along with his girlfriend and accomplice Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus, were so successful in their art thieving, in part because they kept what they took. Sometimes working alone, but often with the help of his girlfriend, Breitwieser amassed a private collection of stolen art objects worth more than a billion dollars, and hoarded it in their attic living quarters of his mother’s house in the Alsace region of France. The village where they lived is bordered by Germany and Switzerland — all countries that were targets of Breitwieser’s obsessive thievery, along with his favorite target, Belgium.

Finkel’s story dramatically details Breitwieser’s rise and fall, including his highlights reel of daring thefts and close escapes, before the 2001 arrest that predicated the destruction of his collection by his mother, Mireille Stengel, in some combination of rage and love. Breitwieser served a scant 4 years for the theft of those 200 objects, including 140 pieces recovered from a canal where Kleinklaus and Stengel jettisoned them, and 66 paintings — some individually valued at millions — that were burned by his mother in an effort to destroy evidence (a crime for which she also served jail time). As reported by GQ, according to the director of the London-based Art Loss Register, the most comprehensive database of stolen art, more than 99 percent of art thieves are motivated by profit rather than aesthetics, leading art crimes to typically be solved when the thieves try to sell the work. Breitwieser’s sincere, obsessive love for his stolen treasure kept it from ever reaching the market, thereby making it not so much an art theft “career” as an all-consuming hobby. To hear Finkel tell it, Breitwieser was devastated by the loss of his collection, and never fully recovered — recidivism was always in the cards. After a second stint in prison, following the 2005 theft of a painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Breitwieser was once more arrested last month, the culmination of a police sting that has been ongoing since 2016.

Finkel’s article helpfully details some of the techniques that, along with an iron nerve and a preference for social Stoicism, helped Breitwieser to relieve some 200+ separate hosts of their possessions — targets included art fairs, museums, churches, and antique vendors.

Since he’s gone public with these tactics, Hyperallergic has asked me to reveal what I would steal, if I could get away with it. In the interest of fair play, I ask that international security forces reinforce their monitoring of the following targets:

I mean, now that I get started, I see how this could get to be a problem … In conclusion, stealing is bad, the over-commodification of art which divorces it from the wellspring of self-expression and collective humanity is also bad, and someone please ask Jared Keeso to give me a call if he’s single. Keep it legal, friends!

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