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The art thief who stole for love

Sibylle of Cleves by Lucas Cranach the Elder, pinched by Breitweiser

Stéphane Breitwieser is probably the most prolific art thief in history, says Moira Hodgson in The Wall Street Journal. Between 1995 and 2001, the young Frenchman stole more than 300 works with a combined value of almost $2bn. He raided museums, castles, churches and auction houses, across France and six other countries. “Not since the Nazis had anyone looted on such a scale.” And his method was almost laughably simple. He would enter the space during opening hours – typically lunchtime, when at least some of the security guards were off duty – with his girlfriend, Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus. She would act as lookout while he went to work: slyly slipping a sculpture down his trousers, say, or removing a painting from its frame and sticking it under his coat. The couple would then leave as calmly as they had entered, sometimes even taking a guided tour or staying for lunch. Breitweiser’s philosophy: “Don’t complicate things.”

Normally, stealing art is the easy bit – the hard part is selling it on. But as Michael Finkel describes in his “enthralling” new book, Breitweiser “stole for love, not money”. He and Kleinklaus kept all their pilfered wares in the two attic rooms where they lived, at the top of his mother’s house. Every surface was covered with stolen art: silver platters; a gold perfume flask; a 70kg statue of the Virgin Mary; even a stained-glass window. And from floor to ceiling hung paintings by the likes of Boucher, Brueghel, Cranach the Younger and Dürer. Breitweiser was eventually caught and served several years in prison. But he never saw himself as a thief. He felt that great works should be “enjoyed in a relaxed atmosphere, preferably at home”, not in some crowded museum. He was, he said, an “art liberator”.

The Art Thief by Michael Finkel is available to buy here.