In an exclusive excerpt from The Art Thief, gentleman burglar Stéphane Breitwieser committed more than 200 heists across Europe, stealing some $2 billion worth of art. But as fraught as his burglaries were, unloading the loot is even more perilous.
By Michael Finkel
Approaching the museum, ready to hunt, Stéphane Breitwieser clasps hands with his girlfriend, Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus, and together they stroll to the front desk and say hello, a cute couple. Then they purchase two tickets with cash and walk in.
It’s lunchtime, stealing time, on a busy Sunday in Antwerp, Belgium, in February 1997. The couple blends with the tourists at the Rubens House, pointing and nodding at sculptures and oils. Anne-Catherine is tastefully dressed in Chanel and Dior bought in second-hand shops, a big Yves Saint Laurent bag on her shoulder. Breitwieser wears a button-down shirt tucked into stylish pants, topped by an overcoat that’s sized a little too roomy, a Swiss Army knife stashed in a pocket.
The Rubens House is an elegant museum in the former residence of Peter Paul Rubens, the great Flemish painter of the 1600s. The couple drifts through the parlor and kitchen and dining room as Breitwieser memorizes the side doors and keeps track of the guards. Several escape routes take shape in his mind. The item they’re hunting is sheltered at the rear of the museum, in a ground-floor gallery with a brass chandelier and soaring windows. Here, mounted atop an ornate wooden dresser, is a plexiglass display box fastened to a sturdy base. Sealed inside the box is an ivory sculpture of Adam and Eve.
Breitwieser had encountered the piece on a solo scouting trip a few weeks earlier and had fallen under its spell—the 400-year-old carving still radiates the inner glow, unique to ivory, that feels to him transcendent. After that trip, he could not stop thinking of the sculpture, dreaming of it, so he has returned to the Rubens House with Anne-Catherine.
All forms of security have a weakness. The flaw with the plexiglass box, he had noticed on his scouting visit, is that the upper part can be separated from the base by removing two screws. Tricky screws, sure, difficult to reach at the rear of the box, but just two. The flaw with the security guards is that they’re human. They get hungry. Most of the day, Breitwieser had observed, there is a guard in each gallery, watching from a chair. Except at lunchtime, when the chairs wait empty as the security staff rotates shorthanded to eat, while those who remain on duty shift from sitting to patrol, dipping in and out of rooms at a predictable pace.
Tourists are the irritating variables. Even at noon there are too many of them, lingering. The more popular rooms in the museum display paintings by Rubens himself, but these pieces are too large to safely steal. The gallery with Adam and Eve features items Rubens collected during his lifetime, including marble busts of Roman philosophers and a scattering of Dutch and Italian oil paintings. The coveted ivory was made by the celebrated German carver Georg Petel.
As the tourists circle, Breitwieser positions himself in front of an oil painting and assumes an art-gazing stance. Hands on hips, or arms crossed, or chin cupped. His repertoire includes more than a dozen such poses, all meant to connote serene contemplation, even while his heart is revving with excitement and fear. Anne-Catherine, on lookout, hovers near the gallery’s doorway. There are no security cameras in the area. There’s only a scattered handful in the whole museum, though he has noted that each has a proper wire— occasionally, in smaller museums, they’re fake.
Breitwieser digs the Swiss Army knife from his pocket, pries open a screwdriver tool, and sets to work on the plexiglass box. Four turns of the screw, maybe five. The carving to him is a masterpiece, just ten inches tall yet dazzlingly detailed, the first humans gazing at each other as they move to embrace, the forbidden fruit picked but not bitten; humanity at the precipice of sin.
Breitwieser hears a soft cough–that’s Anne-Catherine–and quickly reassumes art-watching mode as a guard walks into the room. The guard scans the gallery methodically, then turns around and is barely beneath the doorway before the theft resumes. This is how Breitwieser progresses, in fits and starts, grasshoppering about the gallery, a couple of turns of the screw, then a cough, a couple more, then another.
To unfasten the first screw amid the steady drip of tourists and guards requires ten minutes of concentrated effort, even with the margin for error shaved thin. Breitwieser does not wear gloves, trading fingerprints for dexterity and touch. The second screw is no easier, finally yielding as further visitors arrive, forcing him to bound off again, the pair of screws in his pocket.
The security guard has already appeared three times, and Breitwieser is stressed. He had once worked as a museum guard, soon after graduating high school, and he understands that while almost no one will detect a detail as tiny as a missing or protruding screw, all decent guards focus on people. To remain in the same room for two consecutive security visits, and then commit a theft, is inadvisable. Three visits is borderline reckless. A fourth, which by his watch is little more than a minute away, must not happen. He needs to act or abandon now. It isn’t action, he suspects, that usually lands a thief in prison. It’s hesitation.
Breitwieser steps to the dresser, lifts the plexiglass box from the base, and sets it carefully aside. He grasps the ivory sculpture, sweeps his coattails out of the way, and pushes the work partially into the waistband of his pants at the small of his back, then readjusts the roomy overcoat so the carving is covered. There’s a bit of a lump, but you would have to be extraordinarily observant to notice.
He leaves the plexiglass box to the side—he does not want to waste precious seconds replacing it—and strides off, moving with calculation but no obvious haste. He understands that such a conspicuous theft will swiftly be spotted, triggering an emergency response. The police will arrive. The museum could be locked down, all visitors searched.
Still, he does not run. Running is for pickpockets and purse thieves. He eases outside the gallery and slinks through a nearby door he had scouted, one reserved for employees yet neither locked nor alarmed, and emerges in the museum’s central courtyard. He glides over the pale cobblestones and along an ivy-covered wall, the sculpture knocking at his back, until he reaches another door and pops through, returning inside the museum close to the main entrance. He spots Anne-Catherine, who had taken a different path to the exit, and they proceed together to the quiet road where he had parked their car.
He pops the trunk of the little Opel Tigra, midnight blue, and sets the ivory down. Both of them holding in a bubbling euphoria, he takes the wheel and Anne-Catherine settles into the passenger seat. He wants to gun the engine and screech away but he knows to drive slowly, pausing at traffic lights on the route out of town. Only when they reach the highway and he hits the accelerator does their vigilance fly away, and then they’re just a pair of twenty-five-year-old kids, joyously speeding, home free.
Thieves have been stealing art, often in spectacular ways, since public museums first opened, in the 18th century during the Age of Enlightenment. All this theft shouldn’t come as a surprise, as the mission of a museum isn’t to conceal valuables but to share, in a way that makes you feel close to a piece as possible, unencumbered by security apparatus. This mission means that museums are often vulnerable to theft, especially smaller institutions that do not have the budget to invest in the most advanced protection measures, such as tracking devices as thin as threads that can be sewn into canvasses. Permanently ending nearly all museum crime would be easy—lock the works in vaults, and hire armed guards. Of course this would also mean the end of museums. They’d now be called banks.
Stéphane Breitwieser, however, is not an ordinary thief. A 52-year-old Frenchman who stole from an astounding 200 museums and churches across Europe in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he is an extreme outlier among art thieves. Very few criminals in history have stolen from as many as 10 museums—and the vast majority of art thieves, even if they aren’t caught, only attempt a museum crime once.
The reason for this, as many thieves learn the hard way, is that even after you thwart a museum’s security systems, unlatch displays, circumvent guards, and sneak the art out, your headaches have only begun. A unique and traceable piece, whose image will likely appear on the news, is a burden. And trying to monetize such an item is often more perilous than stealing it. So what can a thief do with a masterwork? There are really only three options.
First: sell the loot to a crooked collector or dealer. Dishonest merchants are everywhere— a University of Oslo study documented illegal art or antiquities transactions in 43 different countries. The going rate for stolen works is three to 10 percent of retail; the better-known the work, the lower the figure. At three percent, a million-dollar piece yields $30,000, which doesn’t seem that impressive, considering the risk. Some items shift owners and countries, ascending through pawn shops, antique stores, and art galleries, generating bills of sale and certificates of authenticity, a years-long shell game that permits the work to slip back into the legal market, often via a minor auction.
Second: extort payment from fleeced museums or private owners, or their insurance companies. Art-napping, it’s called. This works best with recognizable pieces that can’t be fenced and requires a broker who is able to bridge art’s legal and illegal shores—not far apart, but a morally perilous crossing. Paying ransom for stolen art is prohibited in many places, as it may encourage further crime, so the transaction is often murkily labeled “a reward for information.” Such rewards have been used since at least 1688, when an ad placed in the London Gazette by a Mr. Edward Lloyd offered one guinea, about $1.50, for the return of five pocket watches. Lloyd later founded Lloyd’s of London, providing art insurance worldwide.
The Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum, famously robbed of 13 works in 1990 that have yet to be recovered, first offered $1 million for its stolen art, then $5 million, and now $10 million, but even the latest sum is only two percent of the $500 million total worth, perhaps still not enough to shake the works loose.
Third: spend the stolen art like currency in the underworld. A valuable painting that fits in a file folder—a so-called “cabinet painting,” the size thieves most often steal—can represent a significant sum of money in a compact space. Compared with suitcases full of cash, art moves easily across airports and borders. Russian intelligence officers have identified, in just their own country, more than 40 organized crime groups that accept art as collateral. A Picasso painting lifted from a Saudi prince’s yacht in 1999 was traced to 10 different underworld owners, propping up deals along the way for weapons and drugs.
Of course, those three strategies—fencing, extorting, monetizing—involve art changing hands. These exchanges are the soft spots, where law enforcement tries to intervene. Pinpointing the transfers is an art force’s principal task. There are specialized art-police units in at least 20 nations; Italy’s agency is the world’s largest, with around 300 detectives. In the United States, the FBI’s Art Crime Team consists of 20 special agents and produces its own Ten Most Wanted list of missing art.
Agents nurture underworld contacts, listen to wire-tapped calls, and wade through auction listings while crosschecking stolen-art databases. Working an art crime, unlike other police cases, prioritizes recovering items over making arrests. For art stolen from museums, a rough estimate of the recovery rate is 50 percent, and some art-crime units claim nine out of ten.
To pursue the most famous items, top detectives occasionally go undercover. Edvard Munch’s The Scream, stolen on the first day of 1994 Winter Olympics in Norway from the National Gallery in Oslo, was tracked down by a police detective who posed as a fast-talking, foulmouthed, ethically vacant dealer. Over the course of three months, the detective initiated contact with the thieves, gained their trust, and baited them with cash. In a remote cottage overlooking a fjord, The Scream was recovered, and four thieves arrested.
So how did Stéphane Breitwieser, who stole hundreds of works—estimated by police to be worth as much as $2 billion in total—get away with so many crimes? He did something that fewer than one in a thousand art thieves do: He stole for the love of art, not for money. Breitwieser displayed all of his loot in his bedroom and admired them to his heart’s content, while also making sure that no one ever came into his room, including friends, family, and repair people. If you really want to get away with stealing a work of art, Breitwieser explained, the best idea is to simply enjoy the work and never sell it at all.
Adapted from The Art Thief by Michael Finkel © 2023 by Michael Finkel. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
MORE FROM FORBES