The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession by Michael Finkel

The glamorous swirl around world-class thievery is exquisitely conjured by Grace Kelly and her impeccable wardrobe, Cary Grant and his irresistible charm, and the sumptuous French Riviera setting of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film To Catch a Thief.

Instead, the backdrop of Michael Finkel’s chronicle of the greatest art-stealing spree of all time is Mulhouse, a drab industrial city in eastern France thick with suburban sprawl.

Here, from 1995 to 2001, Stéphane Breitwieser, a quiet man in his 20s, decorates the two attic rooms he occupies in his mother’s stuccoed concrete house with nearly 300 objects stolen from small museums, castles, and cathedrals across Europe, including works by Cranach, Brueghel, Boucher, Watteau, and Dürer. His collection, by one estimate, is worth $2 billion.

“Every flat surface in the bedroom is filled,” Finkel writes in his exhilarating new book, The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession. “Silver platters, silver bowls, silver vases, silver cups. Gilded tea sets and pewter miniatures. A cross-bow, a saber, a poleax, a mace. Pieces in marble and crystal and mother-of-pearl. A gold pocket watch, a gold urn, a gold perfume flask, a gold brooch.” In the adjacent room: “A medieval knight’s helmet, a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary, a bejeweled table clock, an illustrated prayer book from the Middle Ages.”

Over a period of eight years, Stéphane Breitwieser decorated his mother’s attic with works by Cranach, Brueghel, Boucher, Watteau, and Dürer.

And so much more, including his very first theft, a portrait of a woman by Christian Wilhelm Dietrich lifted from a medieval castle in Gruyères, Switzerland; his most valuable artwork, Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Sibylle, Princess of Cleves, taken from a castle in Baden-Baden, Germany; and his favorite piece, an ivory sculpture of Adam and Eve by Georg Petel, whisked out of the Rubens House in Antwerp, this latter heist breathtakingly described in the opening of Finkel’s book.

Money, however, is not this master thief’s objective. He never tries to sell a single item he steals. He simply desires to live and breathe art at close proximity, day and night. He finds museums alienating, their displays repulsive rather than enticing. As if hailing from extreme wealth, he feels entitled to re-create for himself a wonder room, his very own cabinet of curiosities. He is, in fact, near penniless, getting by on occasional part-time work; his goal and satisfaction in life, to purloin and possess art.

Yet, as Finkel’s meticulously detailed, page-turning account relates, in a Hitchcockian twist, Breitwieser has two other passions that will be his undoing: his mother, Mireille Stengel, and his girlfriend, Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus. As much a crime caper as a psychological thriller, Finkel’s narrative interweaves gripping descriptions of Breitweiser’s in-plain-sight thefts armed with nothing more than stealth and a Swiss Army knife, a concise history of global art theft, and psychologists’ musings on Breitwieser’s unconscious motivations.

Stéphane Breitwieser in Strasbourg.

Both his mother and girlfriend recognize Breitwieser as an extraordinary human being. The former sees her reclusive, socially awkward son as a genius who, from a very young age, had an uncanny affinity for art, but she never enters his upstairs rooms and turns a blind eye to the provenance of his acquisitions, convincing herself the eclectic artworks come from flea markets, as he claims.

Kleinklaus believes her boyfriend is not just any old art thief but a crusader, exposing shoddy security systems and saving art from languishing unappreciated in dusty, dingy display cases. As she sees it, he would never steal for the money or harm the artworks. The pieces are akin to their children.

As his lookout, Kleinklaus won’t let Breitwieser take unnecessary risks. She makes sure their heists are erratic and far apart. She buys them secondhand designer clothing so they will look wealthy and confident. She curates their many disguises. Nearly every weekend they go on long trips (often borrowing money for gas from Stengel) to Switzerland, Holland, Germany, Austria, and distant parts of France, alternating between museums, auctions, art fairs, and churches.

An autodidact, Breitwieser first began honing his appreciation for art as an adolescent, when, according to Finkel, he “subscribed to archeological journals and fine-art magazines and read textbooks on medieval pottery, classical architecture and Hellenic history.” His taste evolved to center on the late Renaissance and early Baroque; his “sweet spot,” Northern European works from the 16th and 17th centuries. Often, before he steals, he does extensive research on the object’s history, delving deeply into the artist’s biography.

His only friend, the artisan framer Christian Meichler, says of him: “It’s rare for someone his age to appreciate art more for beauty than value. He’s a connoisseur. He talks about art in a way that’s cultivated and intelligent. And honest.”

So, is Breitwieser a kleptomaniac or some aesthetic version of Robin Hood, stealing art to save it from being pilfered by greedy philistines or purchased by blithe billionaires? This is the central tension of The Art Thief, and Finkel deftly keeps us swaying between great sympathy for his central character and profound suspicion.

Breitwieser is near penniless, getting by on occasional part-time work; his goal and satisfaction in life, to purloin and possess art.

As Breitwieser sees it, the story of art “is a story of stealing.” From the tomb raiders in ancient Egypt to Napoleon’s notorious looting to endow the Louvre (see AIR MAIL’s review of Cynthia Saltzman’s Plunder: Napoleon’s Theft of Veronese’s Feast), from the British ravaging of colonial art to the notorious Nazi thefts. (A French art journalist calls Breitwieser’s crimes “the biggest pillage of art since the Nazis.”)

Breitwieser considers art dealers and auction houses “lower than dirt.” From Pliny the Elder’s first-century account of the dishonest tactics of art vendors in imperial Rome to the $512 million in fines Christie’s and Sotheby’s were ordered to pay for a price-fixing scheme in 2002, history, Finkel suggests, backs him up. And each year, globally, there are more than 50,000 art thefts from private homes and museums, carried out by common criminals who sell the works to shady dealers. Compared to the likes of these crooks, Breitwieser sees himself, according to Finkel, as “a formidable rogue in the art world’s eternal den of iniquity.”

Eventually, the European art-crime specialists are on Breitwieser’s trail. Kleinklaus urges him to wear gloves and take more cautionary measures. They scour newspapers to see if the accounts of their thefts identify them in any way. But after nearly a decade of stealing, a fatal mistake is inevitable, and the subsequent unraveling is worthy of Greek tragedy, Breitweiser’s mother and his girlfriend appropriately taking leading roles in the downfall of the world’s most prolific art thief, the man who stole art for art’s sake.

How was Breitwieser caught and what happened to the art? You will have to read this magnificent book to find out. Or see the movie. Surely, a Hollywood film will be forthcoming of The Art Thief to rival To Catch a Thief.

Cary Grant won’t be traipsing across the rooftops of Cannes or Monte Carlo, but there just might be a scene on a roof somewhere along National Route 83 in France near the German border. In a ditch by the side of the road, a timber cutter finds three copper paintings, one of them Allegory of Autumn, attributed to Brueghel.

The woodsman decides this will make a perfect patch to stop the leak in his henhouse. While hammering the copper to the roof, he finds taped on the back a note: “All my life, I will always adore art.” The note is signed by Stéphane Breitwieser and Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus.

Jenny McPhee is a writer and translator and the director of the Center for Applied Liberal Arts at N.Y.U.’s School of Professional Studies