Regardless of its title, journalist Michael Finkel’s new guide The Artwork Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Harmful Obsession (Knopf) isn’t solely about artwork crime. It’s additionally about dependancy, the compulsion to proceed doing issues that you already know are dangerous for you. Surrounding your self with artwork, it seems, may be one in every of them.
The guide’s protagonist, Stéphane Breitwieser, was hooked on visiting regional museums in his native France and in Switzerland. His souvenirs weren’t trinkets from the present store however artworks themselves, plucked from Plexiglas instances, partitions, and curated shows. His loot ranged from a centuries-old tapestry to a Jan Brueghel the Elder portray; he stole most of it in plain sight.
One in every of his many heists came about in 1996, when, along with his girlfriend Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus, he visited the Alexis Forel Museum in Morges, Switzerland, the place he stole a 300-year-old platter by Charles-François Hannong. Breitwieser was deft at undoing the gadgetry of show instances. Utilizing a Swiss Military Knife, he reached what Finkel calls his “screw apotheosis,” undoing 30 of them.
Finkel describes this theft and numerous others in current tense. You’re there, experiencing the joys of the chase alongside Breitwieser. “Twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twenty-nine. And, mercy, thirty,” Finkel writes of the screws. One can virtually hear the case popping open, so vivid is the outline. A lot of The Artwork Thief unfolds on this manner.
Not many pages later, once more with Anne-Catherine, Breitwieser is described visiting the Museum of Superb Arts in Angers the 12 months after. He got here throughout the copper portray attributed to Brueghel, Allegory of Autumn, through which a muscular man plucks fruit from a tree whereas buxom ladies and a baby encompass him, and determined he needed to have it.
“Anne-Catherine positions herself on the stairwell,” Finkel writes, adhering to Breitwieser’s most well-liked “mix of 1 final identify 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 body beneath a show, and Anne-Catherine returns to wipe down the chair along with her handkerchief, eliminating shoe prints too.” As they left, they bid goodbye to protect and a cashier sharing a kiss.
Spoiler alert: Breitwieser did ultimately get caught for theft of those and 200-plus different artwork objects, after which he bought caught time and again for different thefts afterward.
After serving two jail sentences (one for the thefts of the ’90s, the opposite for ones dedicated within the mid-2000s following his preliminary discharge), Breitwieser returned to his ardour upon his second launch. Between 2015 and 2016, he stole Roman cash from an archaeological museum in Strasbourg and paperweights from one other close by establishment, after which traveled to Germany, the place the plundering continued. “None of those,” Finkel stories, “are items he loves.” He was arrested as soon as extra in 2019.
How will we get from clandestine thief to sad-sack stealer? The Artwork Thief charts Breitwieser’s rise and fall in an try to account for his obsession. It’s largely rise, little or no fall, which might be by design, since Finkel appears enamored of Breitwieser.
“I by no means discovered any artwork thieves who actually examine to Breitwieser and Anne-Catherine,” Finkel writes of his analysis within the afterword, the one part penned previously tense. “Practically all people else did it for cash, or stole a single murals. The couple is an anomaly amongst artwork stealers, however there does exist a gaggle of criminals for whom long-term looting in service of aesthetic need is frequent.”
Finkel locates the supply of Breitwieser’s aesthetic need in a childhood journey to the very Strasbourg museum from which he pilfered the Roman cash. “His finger snagged on a free little bit of metallic connected 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 feels like an terrible tidy little bit of myth-making, particularly because it’s not simply verified, however Finkel presents it as reality. Even whether it is apocryphal, that the narrative was put ahead in any respect by Breitwieser is telling.
Breitwieser’s magnetism lay in his potential to make folks consider he was a standard particular person doing wise issues—that he was simply a median unemployed joe with a keenness for museums. This was a ruse. He reportedly even corrected a curator on the date of a Seventeenth-century sword that he stole throughout one in every of his trials; he stated he knew this as a result of he’d learn up on comparable weapons within the library of the Kunstmuseum Basel.
On the very least, Breitwieser had a discerning eye. A typical particular person might not march into Sotheby’s and determine she will need to have a small Lucas Cranach the Youthful portray. But Breitwieser did simply this and, to mark his twenty fourth birthday, managed to choose up a Plexiglas dome that held this work, sandwich the small portray between the pages of a listing, and secret it out of the public sale home throughout public viewing hours. That portray wound up within the attic of Breitwieser’s mom’s home, the place he slept amid all the opposite works he stole.
The jig was up on November 20, 2001, when, on the Wagner Museum in Lucerne, Switzerland, Breitwieser stowed a 400-year-old bugle beneath his Hugo Boss trench coat. He was arrested, instrument nonetheless in tow. It wasn’t the primary time the Swiss police had detained him in reference to an artwork heist, however the final time, he bought away with it. This time, he wasn’t so fortunate. He was finally sentenced to 3 years in jail.
Finkel appears to consider Breitwieser each step of the best way, even when a wholesome little bit of skepticism is required. He doesn’t seem to really feel fairly the identical manner about Anne-Catherine, who has alleged that Breitwieser abused her, each emotionally and bodily, and that he “tormented” her into aiding in his thefts. Finkel does recount one time that Breitwieser hit Anne-Catherine, however by the point she is on the stand, claiming in 2004 that she “didn’t even know he stole artwork,” Finkel remarks that “Anne-Catherine had stretched the reality, seemingly previous snapping, by issuing blanket denials.”
Details are elusive in The Artwork Thief, and never solely within the locations you’d count on. This romanticized account of Breitwieser’s thefts glides over particulars reminiscent of the worth of the works stolen. Authorities have claimed that Breitwieser obtained nicely over $1 billion in artwork, a determine that mysteriously balloons to $2 billion at factors in The Artwork Thief. That is robust to consider as a result of Finkel usually doesn’t present valuations for particular person works. If solely Finkel lavished as a lot consideration on these specifics as he did on the screws that sure the instances for every work Breitwieser accessed.
There are additionally extra primary errors, like one through which Finkel states that Pablo Picasso was detained by the French police in reference to the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa. Really, it was the poet Guillaume Apollinaire who was detained and later cleared. That Finkel was reportedly fired from the New York Occasions in 2002 for making a composite profile topic out of a number of interviews doesn’t assist his credibility.
However The Artwork Thief is de facto meant extra as tasteful pulp than it’s as deeply researched non-fiction. At simply over 200 pages, it does succeed as a refined seaside learn that even will engender among the identical questions that good mysteries do.
Why, for instance, did Breitwieser do it? It’s true that in contrast to most artwork thieves, Breitwieser made few makes an attempt to promote the artworks, which he largely saved for himself. It’s additionally true that he did little harm as he took them, besides to the works themselves. Some have been tossed out home windows by Breitwieser, others might have been later destroyed by Breitwieser’s mom, who additionally obtained jail time. A quantity have been by no means recovered.
As a result of Breitwieser isn’t like most different artwork thieves, he presents an fascinating case. Throughout the years, analysts have been referred to as in to psychologize each him and Anne-Catherine. (Finkel fails to say that she did find yourself receiving a six-month jail sentence for dealing with stolen items, as an alternative reporting that she spent “precisely one night time in jail” and that the conviction was expunged, “as if nothing had occurred throughout her decade with Breitwieser.”) Breitwieser was decided by one to be “impulsive”; Anne-Catherine lacked “the power to say no,” based on one other. But Breitwieser, as one psychotherapist suggests, can’t actually be helped as a result of “there’s no felony psychosis to deal with or to remedy.”
Regardless of the case could also be, Breitwieser did make some makes an attempt to absolve himself for the sins he wrought upon museums throughout France, Germany, and Switzerland. He apologized to curators at trial, and within the guide’s ultimate pages, left with little cash to his identify, he appears to lastly categorical some regret. “I used to be a grasp of the universe,” Breitwieser remarks towards the guide’s finish. “Now I’m nothing.”