The art of the art thief: A look at Stéphane Breitwieser, one of the greatest art thieves of our time

Home » The art of the art thief: A look at Stéphane Breitwieser, one of the greatest art thieves of our time

Santanu Borah takes you through the “career” of Stéphane Breitwieser, who stole art because he liked art. Profit wasn’t his motive. But, whatever his motive was, art that’s not seen is like a tree that falls in a forest and nobody has seen it

There are petty thieves, there are criminal masterminds and then there are art thieves. The art thief is generally not a low-flying lumpen because of the item that she or he chooses to steal (ok, it’s mostly a ‘he’).

In order to be a good art thief, you need a few special traits. First, you have to be a rather good and slick thief. The security detail in a gallery or a museum is tight. Even rumours can’t escape a gallery easily. And then you have to know what to steal. In order to know what you need to steal you need to know a bit of art history and also the auction potential of an artist. It is a bit of work. Which means an art thief is liable to know more about an artist than the general public. That means it makes him both a criminal and an intellectual of sorts.

Sibylle of Cleves, the most expensive painting that Breitwieser stole

One of the greatest art thieves of our time is Stéphane Breitwieser. The thing is, in order to be great at anything, you need to understand that you cannot be motivated by the desire to make money alone. Breitwieser was a smart man with a penchant for ensuring his art collection was the best. He did not steal art for money alone, but he had an obsessive desire to fill his collection with art that he considered to be good enough for stealing. In a weird way, it was his way of showing respect to the art he loved. He has the dubious distinction of stealing art that is worth nearly a billion dollars. And he stored his loot in an attic. In a story in GQ, this is what was said of Breitwieser:

“…In the case of the world’s most successful art thief, Stéphane Breitwieser, it might better be said, steal what you love and you’ll make headlines, but never a living. Breitwieser, along with his girlfriend and accomplice Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus, were so successful in their art thieving, in part because they kept what they took.

Breitwieser served a scant 4 years for the theft of those 200 objects, including 140 pieces recovered from a canal where Kleinklaus and Stengel jettisoned them, and 66 paintings — some individually valued at millions — that were burned by his mother in an effort to destroy evidence (a crime for which she also served jail time) …According to the director of the London-based Art Loss Register, the most comprehensive database of stolen art, more than 99 percent of art thieves are motivated by profit rather than aesthetics, leading art crimes to typically be solved when the thieves try to sell the work. Breitwieser’s sincere, obsessive love for his stolen treasure kept it from ever reaching the market…”

The psychological profile of a thief, who steals art to whet his own appetite for the aesthetic, has to be different. It reminds me of the film Thomas Crown Affair, where the protagonist steals a Monet but replaces it with a Pissaro. The entire ‘Son of Man’ metaphor in the ensuing art heist is another tribute to a great painting. It almost feels like, while many may not agree, the art thief is paying homage to greatness in his own weird way.

When you look at Breitwieser’s modus operandi, it seems deceptively simple and highly effective. Michael Finkel wrote an article about it, and it borders on hilarity for the “sanitised” approach the art thief takes:

“Don’t worry about parking the car,” says the art thief. “Anywhere near the museum is fine.” When it comes to stealing from museums, Stéphane Breitwieser is virtually peerless. He is one of the most prolific and successful art thieves who have ever lived. Done right, his technique—daytime, no violence, performed like a magic trick, sometimes with guards in the room—never involves a dash to a getaway car. And done wrong, a parking spot is the least of his worries.

Just make sure to get there at lunchtime, Breitwieser stresses, when the visitors thin and the security staff rotates shorthanded to eat. Dress sharply, shoes to shirt, topped by a jacket that’s tailored a little too roomy, with a Swiss Army knife stashed in a pocket.

Be friendly at the front desk. Buy your ticket, say hello. Once inside, Breitwieser adds, it’s essential to focus. Note the flow of visitor traffic and memorize the exits. Count the guards. Are they sitting or patrolling? Check for security cameras and see if each has a wire—sometimes they’re fake.

Be friendly at the front desk. Buy your ticket, say hello. Dress sharp… it is hard to keep a straight face to such “invaluable” wisdom. If there is any way of praising a criminal like Breitwieser, you can only say that he loves art more than the average person. You could probably place him in the august company of well-known curators, critic and auction house champions, and he would probably hold his own. It is almost as if his crime is a backhanded way of curation or collection.

While I do not condone such behaviour, it cannot be denied that he is a special kind of thief. There is no way to know whether such crimes can be curbed, but one thing is certain: art is for everyone to enjoy. Any art that lies in an attic is art that is out of the public consciousness and, hence, may not matter if it lies there forever. You do not become rich by art that is out of the public space. Your collection is only as good as what the viewer knows what you possess. Art becomes art when it is shared. What we should learn from Stéphane Breitwieseris is that, while stealing can be thrilling, if you want the thrill to last, share it with everyone.

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