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? To steal like this for years and remain undetected, as Breitwieser had, was unthinkable to Finkel, and he told the thief as much during one of their first interviews, in a small hotel room.
“Well,” Breitwieser replied, “did you see that?”
“See what?” Finkel said, looking around the room, noticing nothing amiss.
Breitwieser rose from his seat, turned and lifted his shirt to reveal Finkel’s laptop, stuffed into the waistband of his pants.
“I now understood his thieving ability in a visceral way,” Finkel writes in his thrilling new book, “The Art Thief.” In it, Finkel deftly unspools the story of Breitwieser’s improbable years-long adventure, skipping with his girlfriend across Europe in pursuit of unthinkable treasure. Breitwieser does not sell the art that he collects—a rarity among art crooks—instead he stuffs the pieces into every available space on the second floor of his mother’s small house. It doesn’t spoil Finkel’s cinematic story to note that, of course, the treasures do not remain tucked away in this little house forever: The pieces meet a far more dramatic fate.
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.
What first sparked Breitwieser’s urge to steal? To what extent did his fury at his father—an art collector himself —drive Breitwieser?
Breitwieser, an only child, was a teenager when his parents’ marriage imploded amid domestic violence. The breakup affected him badly. Breitwieser’s father had inherited a collection of oil paintings, ivory figurines, and antiques weapons, and after the split, his father took every piece with him. Breitwieser remained with his mother and cut off all contact with his father, but was infuriated that he was no longer surrounded by his father’s beautiful wo
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How Did One Man Steal $2 Billion in Art?