The Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Art Thief
Recently, the world of art theft returned to the public’s attention with the success of Netflix’s “Lupin”, a modern-day retelling of the classic French tale of Arsène Lupin, the world-renowned gentleman thief extraordinaire found in tens of novels and novellas by Maurice Leblanc. But did you know that Lupin isn’t the only renowned French art thief? Another is Stéphane Breitwieser, a 49-year-old from the German border province of Grand Est in France, whose story is distinguished by being based on fact.
Unlike Netflix’s “Lupin”, Stéphane Breitwieser’s six year foray into the world of professional art theft has yet to appear on the silver screen. His modus operandi was straightforward enough, he merely picked up the art and walked out with it in his jacket. It was as simple as that. Often, he had his girlfriend and longtime accomplice Anne-Catherine Kleinklauss standing guard for patrolling security or wandering tourists.
This unsophisticated method of thievery obviously worked for Breitwieser: from his first robbery in 1995 to his inevitable capture in 2001, he successfully robbed over two hundred artworks from 172 different museums, amassing a collection of treasures worth more than $1.4 billion in the process. This gained him the moniker of the most prolific art thief in history. Breitwieser’s simple method allowed him to steal a separate piece of art every fifteen days on average.
From his methods, it seems unbelievable that Breitwieser could have eluded capture for so many years. While most art thieves draw attention to themselves when they’re trying to sell such high-value items, Breitwieser didn’t steal these irreplaceable paintings for financial gain, but rather to sate his hunger to own these magnificent pieces of art.
During his six year long robbing spree, Breitwieser remained relatively poor, working as a minimum wage waiter at the time of his last robbery in 2001. Remarkably, his low wages always went towards funding his next heist, from fuel costs to hotel rooms. Breitwieser’s addiction to crime left him with no financial independence and living in his mother’s attic, where he stored his extraordinary collection of art.
Piece by piece, Breitwieser had obtained one of the most significant collections of art in the world. His mother’s attic contained a hoard of priceless Renaissance paintings, intricate silverware, and handcrafted marble statues. His bedroom had more in common with a mythical dragon’s lair. It’s nearly unimaginable how one small room could possibly hold so much colour, beauty, and treasure.
Although Breitwieser’s collection was already immense, he simply couldn’t leave the game. In November 2001, Breitwieser’s luck finally ran out upon his attempt to pilfer a rare 16th-century golden bugle, one of only three in existence. He was apprehended by a guard in the Richard Wagner Museum in Lucerne, Switzerland as he was making his move.
Seemingly insatiable in his desire to own this bugle, Breitwieser sloppily returned to the museum just two days later. Unfortunately for him, a journalist named Erich Eisner was walking his dog around the museum grounds that day and saw a man who seemed out of place surveying the museum. Eisner alerted the very same guard who had previously caught Breitwieser and once again he was arrested for attempted robbery. While in police custody, Breitwieser confessed to all of his previous 239 robberies little realising that no police force yet suspected him of any crime. The police didn’t even realise that these crimes were connected.
Breitwieser’s girlfriend soon suspected that he had been captured, when he failed to return from Switzerland the following day. With feelings of overwhelming panic for what the police might find if they searched his room, Anne-Catherine Kleinklauss called upon Breitwieser’s mother and revealed her son’s vast collection to her for the first time.
When Breitwieser’s mother first saw one of the greatest hoards in the history of art, she didn’t see a collection of immense beauty as her son might have it. Rather, she saw the evidence that would take her son away from her, take his freedom. Breitwieser’s mother quickly went to work, taking his collection of jewellery, carvings, and engravings from the room, and throwing them all in the Rhone-Rhine canal.
Breitwieser’s mother then moved on to his Renaissance paintings: all of the beautiful colours, the brilliant shapes, and meticulous characters that had enriched her son’s life over the previous six years. She took his beloved works by Brueghel, Teniers, Van Kessel, and others, and burned them in the Riedwihr woods. Breitwieser’s mother destroyed her son’s beloved hoard of priceless art, tearing it all apart with knives, washing centuries of art down the sink, and destroying them in the food-waste disposal.
It took 19 days for the Swiss and French police to cooperate in organising an international search warrant, but when they eventually arrived, the house was completely bare. Breitwieser had to be placed on suicide watch after finding out that his cherished collection was missing, suspected destroyed. Some of these works were fortunately recovered. A river might damage a plate, say, but it won’t completely destroy it. The Rhone-Rhine canal was dredged and 70 pieces were returned to their former homes. What was ashes was returned to the wind.
During four years of court proceedings, Breitwieser is recorded as constantly interrupting to criticise the court’s lack of appreciation for these artworks. He was sentenced to three years in prison by a court in Strasbourg. His mother received a three-year sentence for destroying the art, while his now ex-girlfriend received 18 months for receiving stolen goods.
Ultimately, any justice in catching the World’s Greatest Thief seems unimportant next to the loss of so much beauty, so many irreplaceable artworks. Breitwieser didn’t steal for monetary gain, he stole because he loved these paintings and believed, perhaps sincerely, that no one could possibly value and respect them as he did.