It was a rare, 16th-century bugle that finally took him down.
Stéphane Breitwieser was visiting the Richard Wagner Museum in Switzerland and was captivated by the magnificent brass piece that was one of only three that existed in the world. So he did what came naturally to him after nearly seven years of indulging his love of art—he stole it.
But this time, unlike hundreds of times before, his brazen actions did him in. When he decided to return to the museum two days later to see what else might catch his eye, a security guard recognized him and called the police. Breitwieser’s crime spree had come to an end.
For over six years, Breitwieser, an ordinary Frenchman with an extraordinary love of art, trolled museums and private collections across Europe, helping himself to the pieces that caught his eye. He amassed a private collection of his own, to the tune of 239 pieces of art and priceless artifacts from 172 institutions totaling over a billion dollars. He was one of the most prolific art thieves in modern history.
His crimes against the European art world were bad enough. But Breitwieser committed one other unforgivable sin—he entrusted much of his hoard to his mom.
When the law eventually caught up to him in late 2001, his dear maman Mireille destroyed over 100 pieces of art and precious artifacts that were residing in her home and that were ultimately thought to be worth $30 to $40 million.
It all started when Breitwieser was a young lad in his early twenties. He had embarked on a career as a waiter, working mostly across the border from his hometown of Mulhouse, France, in Switzerland. While that may have been his day job, Breitwieser professed to be a “self-taught art lover.”
In 1994, according to a 2005 article in Forbes, he was visiting the Musée des Amis de Thann in Alsace, France, when he became enraptured by an 18th-century pistol.
It was the lax security around the piece that spurred him to make a move that would eventually define his life. Noticing that the case was unlocked, Breitwieser decided to relieve the museum of their antique firearm.
“The pistol fascinated me. My heart was going 100 miles an hour, I was terrified, but I was driven by passion. I asked myself, ‘What's holding me back?’” Breitwieser said. “Afterwards, I slept with the pistol beside me—I cleaned the wood, removed the rust; I treated it like a baby I was nursing. But I was still very frightened. Each day for a month I bought the newspaper, but the museum said nothing about the theft—a lot of museums prefer to smother these affairs. Eventually I calmed down.”
In his own memoir and to other journalists, he claimed that his spree began a year later, in 1995, when he and his girlfriend were visiting a castle in Switzerland.
There, he saw an 18th-century painting that wasn’t that valuable, but that reminded him of a Rembrandt.
So, while his girlfriend played lookout—a role she would embrace for the remainder of his criminal career—he relieved the canvas of its frame, stuffed it under his jacket, and took it home.
He has maintained that his criminal inclination stemmed purely from a passion for the objects that fell victim to his sticky fingers. “I did it because I loved these things, because I simply had to possess them,” he told a writer for Forbes who also noted that he showed “not a shred of remorse.”
But it seems he may have been equally tempted by the lax security that plagues many smaller museums. “There was often no watchman or anything—all you had to do was bend down and pick something up,” he said.
Whether it was the antique pistol or the Rembrandt look-alike who proved his gateway drug, stealing art became an almost instant addiction. Until he was caught in November 2001, the waiter continued to travel around France, Switzerland, and other European countries and filch the treasures that caught his eye.
Particularly early on, these treasures were Old Master paintings. He took Pieter Brueghel’s “Cheat Profiting from His Master,” François Boucher’s “Sleeping Shepherd,” Corneille de Lyon’s “Mary, Queen of Scots,” and Antoine Watteau’s drawing “Two Men.” The most famous Old Master he stole was Lucas Cranach the Elder’s “Sybille, Princess of Cleves.”
But in addition to the Old Master paintings, Breitwieser increasingly helped himself to antique objects and artifacts of value. They ranged from ceramic pieces, vases, jewelry, priceless musical instruments, antique weapons, and much more.
“Looking back on this case, there was a pattern of just one or two objects being taken from different museums. But we thought it was the work of a gang. What happened here was simply unimaginable,” Alexandra Smith, operations manager at the Art Loss Register, told The New York Times.
The art thief wasn’t just exceptional for his audacity—according to experts in the field, serial thieves of fine art are very unusual; he was also unique in what he did with his spoils. Breitwieser wasn’t interested in profiting from his hobby, and he never attempted to sell a single piece. He truly wanted the pieces he took for his own enjoyment.
He stored most of his loot in his bedroom at his mom’s house in Mulhouse, France, and he took the utmost care with each treasure.
He often reframed the canvases before arranging them in his makeshift bedroom gallery in which, according to Anthony M. Amore and Tom Mashberg in Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists, he “kept the lights dim and the shades drawn to protect the paintings from fading.”
He did everything he could to care for the art. Everything, that is, except pass his “handle with care” mantra on to his mother.
After Breitwieser was arrested, his girlfriend-cum-accomplice informed his mom of what had happened.
Mireille freaked out. While she initially claimed that she had no idea the value of the works and that she destroyed them out of anger toward her son, many of the authorities involved have suspected that she did what she did out of loyalty.
And what she did turned what could have been an intriguing art theft caper into a tragedy.
Mireille got to work destroying all traces of evidence. She shredded 60 Old Master canvases, putting some of the pieces down the garbage disposal and throwing others out in the trash along with the broken frames.
Then, she rounded up 109 of the artifacts, statues, and antiques her son had collected and she unceremoniously dumped them in the Rhône-Rhine Canal. It is thought that she destroyed around two-thirds of Breitwieser’s entire haul.
Though utterly disastrous, her actions were initially effective. Unfortunately, she and her son were not on the same page.
Once in custody, Breitwieser hoped that the evidence of his crime would help get him out of his bind. He quickly confessed all, told the authorities where they could find his loot, and even, according to Guardian reporter Jon Henley, hoped his cooperation might help him win brownie points that would result in his being asked to advise some of the very same institutions he had robbed.
But when the authorities arrived at his mother’s home a week later, all traces of that evidence he had pointed them to were gone. It was only after ancient artifacts began washing up on the banks of the river that they started to suspect the true depth of the crime. It would take them several more months to get Mireille to confess to her role in the crime.
Given the extent of the destruction to cultural artifacts and priceless works of art, the parties involved got off with relatively light punishments.
Mireille served 18 months in prison, Breitwieser’s girlfriend did six months for her role, and the serial art lover-turned-thief served several years in Switzerland before being sentenced to 26 months in jail in France. In 2006, Breitwieser wrote a memoir titled Confessions of an Art Thief.
Perhaps Breitwieser’s punishment was worse than it seemed. After all, the “eccentric kleptomaniac,” as Smith called him, never stopped claiming he acted out of a love for the art. And in the end, that love was what led to their destruction.
While awaiting his sentencing in a jail in France, Breitwieser attempted suicide. Some reports claimed he did so after learning the fate of his precious treasures.