The man who robs art museums
Stéphane Breitwieser is “perhaps the most prolific art thief in history,” said Michael Finkel in GQ. The Frenchman has robbed more than $1.4 billion worth of art from nearly 200 museums and steals like he’s performing a magic trick, without violence or a frantic getaway. When he sees a piece he likes, says Breitwieser, 47, “I get smitten. Looking at something beautiful, I can’t help but weep.” He never sells anything he steals, but simply brings the work home to adore. “The pleasure of having,” he says, “is stronger than the fear of stealing.” He became hooked after lifting an antique pistol from a French museum at age 22, and by the early 2000s he averaged a theft every two weeks. His trick is acting as casually as possible and waiting for a distraction, sometimes slipping paintings under his oversize coat while on guided museum tours. He did many heists with his longtime girlfriend, who’d cough softly when someone approached as he unscrewed display cases with a small Swiss Army knife. At an art fair in Holland, Breitwieser heard someone shout “Thief!” and turned to see security guards tackle another burglar. He nabbed a painting amid the commotion. Arrested and imprisoned several times, Breitwieser was caught yet again last month after French police discovered Roman coins and other objects at his home, allegedly taken from museums in France and Germany. “Art has punished me,” he says.