While not numismatic, this GQ story of a brazen art thief is every museum's worst nightmare. And instead of being called an art thief, Breitwieser prefers to be thought of as an art collector with an unorthodox acquisition style.
Among the many mysteries that the author Michael Finkel hoped to untangle when he first began interviewing the world's most prolific art thief was the matter of logistics. How did Stéphane Breitwieser do it? How did he manage to slip more than 300 works of art out of museums and cathedrals all across Europe, amassing a secret collection worth as much as $2 billion? And how did he do it all during daylight hours, as museum-goers and security guards often mingled nearby?
Finkel first introduced GQ readers to Breitwieser in 2019, in his story The Secrets of the World's Greatest Art Thief. Since then, Breitwieser was arrested for stealing art once more, and when he faced trial earlier this year, Finkel was in the courtroom. Now, as his new book arrives—a full 11 years after he first began pursuing the story—Finkel discusses how he reported it, why Breitwieser is so unique among criminals, and what it feels like to visit a museum with one of history's most spectacular art thieves in tow.
GQ: Stéphane Breitwieser averaged an art theft every two weeks for more than seven years. His collection was enormous. What would I have seen if I'd been able to visit his
Ali Baba's cave, as you call it, the attic rooms in his mother's house?
Michael Finkel: Breitwieser lived with his mother and girlfriend in a boxy, unremarkable house in the suburban sprawl of Mulhouse, a city in the industrial belt of eastern France, one of the least attractive areas in a nation filled with beauty. During my reporting for the book, I visited the house. You enter through a small front entryway cut into a corner of the home. Most of the living area is on the ground floor, where his mother slept, but a narrow set of stairs ascends to a wooden door. Open that door.
And you'll be blown away. I have seen video footage of the attic lair at the height of its glory. Every inch is filled with extraordinary objects – works in silver, ivory, bronze, crystal, porcelain, and gold. The walls are crowded with Renaissance oil paintings. Pieces are arranged on armchairs, balanced on windowsills, stacked in the closet. Everything, in total, is worth an estimated $2 billion. The colors are incandescent. And in the middle of it all is a majestic four-poster bed. Breitwieser basically lived inside a treasure chest.
In the end, the French media called Breitwieser's crime spree
the biggest pillage of art since the Nazis.
Breitwieser, as you write, challenges many of the conventional assumptions we have about art thieves. Maybe the biggest is his motive: he steals because he loves art, not to sell it. How rare is this in art crime?
Art thieves hate art. That is the reality. Fictitious art thieves, in novels and movies, always seem to be sensitive connoisseurs, like Pierce Brosnan in The Thomas Crown Affair—a movie that Breitwieser adores. But in real life, less than one in a thousand art thieves actually care about art. They just want the money.
Breitwieser is one of these rare exceptions. He always stole during daylight hours, without resorting to violence, or even the threat of violence, and was motivated by beauty, not cash. This is a chief reason he was able to avoid capture for so long – police detectives who specialize in art crime typically make arrests when a thief attempts to sell a stolen work.
To read the complete article, see:
How Did One Man Steal $2 Billion in Art?
For more information, or to order the book, see:
The Art Thief
Wayne Homren, Editor
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