In The Art Thief, Michael Finkel examines what motivated a working-class Frenchman to become an art thief.
Can a serious criminal also be a gentle aesthete? This contradiction lies at the heart of The Art Thief, a richly observed and deeply reported portrait of Stéphane Breitwieser, arguably one of the world’s most “successful and prolific” art thieves, if not the most. The journalist Michael Finkel mines the depths of his subject’s life to examine what motivated an ordinary, young, working-class Frenchman to systematically perpetrate art crimes to an estimated tune of two billion dollars. The result is compelling.
The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession
Simon and Schuster
Price: Rs. 699
The Art Thief opens at a museum called the Rubens House in Antwerp. It is 1997. Breitwieser is visiting with his girlfriend Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus. At this point, the two 25-year-olds are seasoned thieves. On this occasion, Breitwieser has already set his eyes on “Adam and Eve”, a delicate 17th century ivory sculpture by George Petel, a young protégé of Peter Paul Rubens. It will take tremendous dexterity and daring for Breitwieser to pull off this theft with guards and tourists milling around. And yet, with just a Swiss Army knife and a little help from Kleinklaus, he does just that: plucks the sculpture out, tucks it into his pants, and slowly walks off. This is one of several suspensefully narrated theft scenes in the book. Each time, we know Breitwieser could be caught—one false move, a hidden camera, a turn of fortune—and yet, perversely, we keep rooting for him.
What happens when obsessions turn dark? When aesthetics trumps ethics? When victimless art heists wrong no one and yet everyone? This is a fine work of true crime that plunges us headlong both into the mind of the criminal and into the very specific kind of world he inhabits. Along with deft pacing and detail on how to steal a masterpiece, it tangentially raises questions about art, ownership, and allegiances.
Breitwieser is sui generis. He claims to loot for pleasure. He never makes money off stealing. He never uses violence. He only takes the help of Kleinklaus. He often pilfers with little preplanning and when a piece suddenly speaks to him. “Breitwieser’s sole motivation for stealing, he insists, is to surround himself with beauty, to gorge on it,” Finkel writes. “Breitwieser prefers to be thought of as an art collector with an unorthodox acquisition style. Or, if you will, he’d like to be called an art liberator.” Nevertheless, the thrill of adventure and frisson of risk seem to animate him.
We are told that other art thieves “disgust him”. This is because he abjures violence, whether in the act of stealing, or damaging an artwork, as criminals sometimes do. Breitwieser’s numbers are deplorable or impressive, depending on your perspective. He swiped, on average, a piece every 12 days for seven years. Over 300 pieces over his entire career. His taste veers between oil paintings, sculptures, and other ornamental bric-a-brac, mostly from the late Renaissance. He steals quickly and across geographies: France, Switzerland, Austria, Germany.
Often a single museum visit can generate multiple new pieces for his “collection”. These are spirited away and then stored in an attic in his mother’s “humble” stucco house in “a hardscrabble town” in rural France. He lives here with Kleinklaus. From the comfort of his bed, he can gaze upon his riches at his convenience. The works themselves are rarely household names. No Munch or “Mona Lisa”, this is a man interested in the overlooked masters: Lucas Cranach, Jan van Kessel, Albrecht Durer. “He takes only works that stir him emotionally, and seldom the most valuable piece in a place,” Finkel writes.
- Michael Finkel’s The Art Thief delves into the life and motivation of Stéphane Breitwieser, one of the world’s most prolific art thieves.
- The book, says Bhavya Dore, plunges us headlong both into the mind of the criminal and the very specific kind of world he inhabits; along with deft pacing and detail on how to steal a masterpiece, it tangentially raises questions about art, ownership, and allegiances.
- The Art Thief is told in the present tense, though these crimes took place between 1994 and 2001, and this gives the narrative a sense of now-ness, as if we are watching it live.
How different was Breitwieser?
Finkel does not give us a sense of art crime in general, only dropping passing references to the biggest art heists in history. But is Breitwieser really that different from those criminals as he claims? This question develops in different directions as the book unfolds.
Written in 38 tight chapters, The Art Thief is told in the present tense, though these crimes took place between 1994 and 2001. This gives the narrative a sense of now-ness, as if we are watching it live. Even though I had not followed the story in real life, as I read on I knew that Breitwieser would eventually be caught. The events that lead to his undoing are dramatic, almost tragic. An act of hubris, a misjudgement, and then it all comes apart. The final stretch of the book featuring his capture, trial, and the hunt for the stolen goods turns occasionally horrific.
Finkel first approached Breitwieser in 2012. He eventually did a series of interviews with him in 2017, managing an extraordinary degree of access to his life. Told largely through Breitwieser’s perspective, a sympathetic portrait of the art thief as a troubled young man emerges. His lofty claims notwithstanding, we learn that Breitwieser has a record of shoplifting as a teenager. He has lied about his family in the past. Mental health experts who later examine him find troubling traits: coercion, possible emotional abuse of his partner.
The interviews are supplemented with police records and trial transcripts. But both Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus and Mireille Stengel, Breitwieser’s mother, remain ciphers. Neither was willing to be interviewed, so the women, who alternately appear as accomplices, victims, and witnesses, are entirely refracted through either Breitwieser’s telling or legal records. A few key law enforcement agents do feature, but this book is not interested in turning into a police procedural. It is, in the end, a book about obsession, not detection.
Bhavya Dore is a freelance journalist who writes for various Indian and international publications.