THE art thief

The Secrets of the World's Greatest Art Thief

Stéphane Breitwieser robbed nearly 200 museums, amassed a collection of treasures worth more than $1.4 billion, and became perhaps the most prolific art thief in history. And as he reveals to GQ’s Michael Finkel, how Breitwieser managed to do all this is every bit as surprising as why.

BY MICHAEL FINKEL

February 28, 2019

“Don't worry about parking the car,” says the art thief. “Anywhere near the museum is fine.” When it comes to stealing from museums, Stéphane Breitwieser is virtually peerless. He is one of the most prolific and successful art thieves who have ever lived. Done right, his technique—daytime, no violence, performed like a magic trick, sometimes with guards in the room—never involves a dash to a getaway car. And done wrong, a parking spot is the least of his worries.

Just make sure to get there at lunchtime, Breitwieser stresses, when the visitors thin and the security staff rotates shorthanded to eat. Dress sharply, shoes to shirt, topped by a jacket that's tailored a little too roomy, with a Swiss Army knife stashed in a pocket.

Be friendly at the front desk. Buy your ticket, say hello. Once inside, Breitwieser adds, it's essential to focus. Note the flow of visitor traffic and memorize the exits. Count the guards. Are they sitting or patrolling? Check for security cameras and see if each has a wire—sometimes they're fake.

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When it comes to museum flooring, creaky old wood is ideal, so even with his back turned, Breitwieser can hear footsteps two rooms away. Carpeting is the worst. Here, at the Rubens House, in Antwerp, Belgium, it's somewhere in between: marble. For this theft, Breitwieser has arrived with his girlfriend and frequent travel companion, Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus, who positions herself near the only doorway to a ground-floor exhibition room and coughs softly when anyone approaches.

The Rubens House in Antwerp. The site of one of Breitwieser's more memorable heists.

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The museum is the former home of Peter Paul Rubens, the great Flemish painter of the 1600s. Breitwieser isn't interested in stealing a Rubens; his paintings tend to be extremely large or too overtly religious for Breitwieser's taste. What sets Breitwieser apart from nearly every other art thief—it's the trait, he believes, that has facilitated his prowess—is that he will steal only pieces that stir him emotionally. And he insists that he never sells any. Stealing art for money, he says, is stupid. Money can be made with far less risk. But stealing for love, Breitwieser knows, is ecstatic.

And this piece, right in front of him, is a marvel. He had discovered it during a visit to the museum two weeks previous. He wasn't able to take it then, but its image blazed in his mind every time he sought sleep. This is why he's returned; this has happened before. There will be no good rest until the object is his.

It's an ivory sculpture of Adam and Eve, carved in 1627 by Georg Petel, a friend of Reubens's, who, according to Breitwieser, gifted him the piece for his 50th birthday. The carving is a masterpiece, just ten inches tall but dazzlingly detailed, the first humans gazing at each other as they move to embrace, Eve's hair scrolling down her back, the serpent coiled around the tree trunk behind them, and the unbitten apple, cheekily, in Adam's hand, indicating his complicity in the fall of man, contrary to the book of Genesis. “It's the most beautiful object I have ever seen,” says Breitwieser.

Georg Petel’s ivory sculpture of Adam and Eve, stolen from—and later returned to—the museum at the home of Peter Paul Rubens in Antwerp.

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The ivory sculpture is sealed beneath a plexiglass dome fastened to a thick base, resting on an antique dresser. Breitwieser's first objective is to remove the two screws that connect the dome and the base. There's no camera here, and only one guard is in motion, poking her head in every few minutes.

The tourists, as usual, are the problem—too many of them, lingering. The room is filled with items Rubens had amassed during his lifetime, including marble busts of Roman philosophers, a terra-cotta sculpture of Hercules, and a scattering of 17th-century oil paintings.

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Patience is needed, but a moment soon comes when it's just Kleinklaus and Breitwieser alone, and in an instant he unfolds the screwdriver from the Swiss Army knife and sets upon the plexiglass dome. Breitwieser is shorter than average and tousle-haired, with piercing blue eyes that, for all his stealth, are often animate with expression. He is lithe and coordinated, and uses athleticism and theater in his work. Maybe five seconds pass before Kleinklaus coughs and he vaults away from the carving, reverting to casual-art-gazing mode.

It's a start. He has turned the first screw twice around. Each job is different; improvisation is crucial—rigid plans do not work during daytime thefts, when there are variables too numerous to preordain. During his previous trip to the museum, he had studied how the Adam and Eve was protected and had also spotted a convenient door, reserved for guards, that opened into the central courtyard and did not appear to have an alarm.

Over the course of ten minutes, progressing fitfully, Breitwieser removes the first screw and pockets it. He does not wear gloves, trading fingerprints for dexterity. The second screw takes equally as long.

Now he's set. The security guard has already appeared three times, and at each check-in Breitwieser and Kleinklaus had stationed themselves in different spots. Still, the time elapsed in this room has reached his acceptable limit. There's a group of visitors present, all using audio guides and studying a painting, and Breitwieser judges them appropriately distracted.

He nods to his girlfriend, who slips out of the room, then lifts the plexiglass dome and sets it carefully aside. He grasps the ivory and pushes it into the waistband of his pants, at the small of his back, adjusting his roomy jacket so the carving is covered. There's a bit of a lump, but you'd have to be exceptionally observant to notice.

Then he strides off, moving with calculation but no obvious haste. He knows that the theft will swiftly be spotted. He'd left the plexiglass bell to the side—no need to waste precious seconds replacing it—and the guard will surely initiate an emergency response. Though not, he's betting, quickly enough.

From the room with the ivory, the museum layout encourages visitors to ascend to the second floor, but Breitwieser pushes through the door he'd seen on his earlier trip, crosses the courtyard toward the main entrance, and walks past the front desk onto the streets of Antwerp. Kleinklaus rejoins him before they reach the car, a little Opel Tigra, and Breitwieser sets the ivory in the trunk and they drive slowly away, pausing at traffic lights on the route out of town.

Stéphane Breitwieser robbed nearly 200 museums to amass his secret art collection.

CHRISTOPHE KARABA/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

Crossing international borders is stressful but low-risk. They travel from Belgium to Luxembourg to Germany to their home in France without incident, just another young, stylish couple out for a jaunt. It's the first weekend of February 1997, and both are only 25 years old, though Breitwieser's already been stealing art for a while.

The road trip ends at a modest steep-roofed house built amid the sprawl of Mulhouse, an industrial city in eastern France. The ivory might be worth a million dollars, but Breitwieser is broke. He does not have a steady job—when he is employed, it's often as a waiter. His girlfriend works in a hospital as a nurse's aide, and the couple live in his mother's house. Their private space is on the top floor, an attic bedroom and small living area that Breitwieser always keeps locked.

They open the door now, cradling the ivory, and a wave of swirling colors seems to break over their heads as they step inside their fantasy world. The walls are lined with Renaissance paintings—portraits, landscapes, still lifes, allegories. There's a bustling peasant scene by Dutch master Adriaen van Ostade, an idyllic pastoral by French luminary François Boucher, an open-winged bat by German genius Albrecht Dürer. A resplendent 16th-century wedding portrait, the bride's dress threaded with pearls, by Lucas Cranach the Younger, may be worth more than all the houses on Breitwieser's block put together, times two.

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In the center of the bedroom sits a grandiose canopied four-poster bed, draped with gold velour and red satin, surrounded by furniture stacked with riches. Silver goblets, silver platters, silver vases, silver bowls. A gold snuffbox once owned by Napoleon. A prayer book, lavishly illuminated, from the 1400s. Ornate battle weapons and rare musical instruments. Bronze miniatures and gilded teacups. Masterworks in enamel and marble and copper and brass. The hideaway shimmers with stolen treasure. “My Ali Baba's cave,” Breitwieser calls it.

His hideaway shimmers with stolen treasure. “My Ali Baba's cave,” he calls it.

Entering this place, every time, dizzies him with joy. He describes it as a sort of aesthetic rapture. Breitwieser sprawls on the bed, examining his new showpiece. The Adam and Eve ivory, after a four-century journey to arrive in his lair, appears more stunning than ever. It goes on the corner table, the first thing he sees when he opens his eyes.

During the week, while his girlfriend is working, he visits his local libraries. He learns everything he can about the ivory, the artist, his masters, his students. He takes detailed notes. He does this with nearly all his pieces—he gets attached to them. Back home, he meticulously cleans the carving, with soapy water and lemon, his thumb passing over the sculpture's every nubbin and ridge.

But this is not enough. His love for the ivory doesn't fade, that's not fair to say—he just has room in his heart for a little more love. So he consults his art magazines and auction catalogs. The Zurich art fair is about to begin. He plots a route into Switzerland, avoiding tolls to save money, and early the next Saturday morning they're back on the road.

Sibylle of Cleves by Lucas Cranach the Younger, thought to be worth roughly $4.8 million, was perhaps the most valuable piece in Breitwieser’s collection.

A still life of flowers by Jan van Kessel the Elder that was stolen from a village museum in Belgium, a country Breitwieser says attracted him "like a lover."

All his life, inanimate objects have had the power to seduce him. “I get smitten,” Breitwieser says. Before artwork, it was stamps and coins and old postcards, which he'd purchased with pocket money. Later it was medieval pottery fragments he'd find near archaeological sites, free for the taking.

When he covets an object, says Breitwieser, he feels the emotional wallop of a coup de coeur—literally, a blow to the heart. There are just things that make him swoon. “Looking at something beautiful,” he explains, “I can't help but weep. There are people who do not understand this, but I can cry for objects.”

His interactions with the world of the living were far less fulfilling. He never really understood his peers, or almost anyone else for that matter. Popular pastimes, like sports and video games, baffled him. He's never had any interest in drinking or drugs. He could happily spend all day alone at a museum—his parents often dropped him off—or touring archaeological sites, of which there are dozens in the area where he grew up, but around others he was sometimes hotheaded and temperamental.

Breitwieser was born in 1971 in the Alsace region of northeastern France, where his family has deep roots. He speaks French and German and a little English. His father was a sales executive in Switzerland, just over the border, and his mother was a nurse. He's an only child. The family, for most of his youth, was well-off, living in a grand house filled with elegant furniture—Louis XV armchairs, from the 1700s; Empire dressers, from the 1800s. His parents had hoped he'd become a lawyer, but he dropped out of university after a couple of years.

The Alsace region of France, where Breitwieser grew up, sits in the northeastern corner of the country, along the borders of Germany and Switzerland.

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His first museum heist came shortly after a family crisis. When he was 22 years old, still living at home, his parents' marriage ended explosively. His father left and took his possessions with him, and Breitwieser and his mother tumbled down the social ladder, re-settling in a smaller place, the antiques replaced by Ikea.

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Cushioning the trauma was a woman Breitwieser met through an acquaintance, a fellow archeology buff. Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus was the same age as Breitwieser, and similarly introverted, with a kindred sense of curiosity and adventure. She had a sly smile and an irresistible pixie cut. They shared a passion for museums, thrilled to be immersed in beauty. Breitwieser finally experienced a coup de coeur for an actual person. “I loved her right away,” he says. Soon after Breitwieser's father departed, Kleinklaus moved in.

A few months later, the couple were visiting a museum in the French village of Thann when Breitwieser spotted an antique pistol. His first thought, he recalls, was that he should already own something like this. Breitwieser's father had collected old weapons but had taken them when he'd left the family, not bothering to leave a single piece for his son. The firearm, exhibited in a glass case on the museum's second floor, was hand-carved around 1730. It was far nicer than anything his father had owned.

He felt an urge to possess it. The museum was small, no security guard or alarm system, just a volunteer at the entrance booth. The display case itself, Breitwieser noted, was partially open. He was wearing a backpack and could easily hide the pistol in there.

One must resist temptation, he knew. It even says so in the Bible, not that he was particularly religious. What our heart really wants, we must often deny. Maybe this is why so many people seem conflicted and miserable—we are taught to be at constant war with ourselves. As if that were a virtue.

What would happen, he wondered, if he did not resist temptation? If, instead, he fed temptation and freed himself from society's repressive restraints? He had no desire to physically harm anyone or so much as cause fright. He contemplated the flintlock pistol and whispered a few of these thoughts to his girlfriend.

Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus has never spoken to the media about her relationship with Breitwieser and any possible role in the crimes, and neither has Breitwieser's mother, Mireille Stengel. Though there exist supporting documents and reported accounts, much of this story is based primarily on interviews with Breitwieser. While he was in the museum, in front of the pistol, Kleinklaus's response, the way Breitwieser remembers it, made him believe that they were destined to be together.

“Go ahead,” she said. “Take it.” So he did.

From that moment on, he catered to his impulses in an unimaginable way. His only goal was to obey temptation. By the time he pilfers the Adam and Eve ivory, three years after stealing the pistol, he's amassed some 100 objects, all on display in his hideout. He is ecstatic beyond measure, cosseted like a king. He feels as though he and his girlfriend have discovered the meaning of life.

A curious thing about temptation, at least in Breitwieser's case, is that it never seems to abate. If anything, the more he feeds it, the hungrier it gets. The weekend after the ivory theft in Belgium, Breitwieser and Kleinklaus drive through the snow-streaked Alps to the Zurich art fair. Behind a dealer's back, quick as a cat, he steals a spectacular goblet, filigreed with silver and gold, from the 16th century.

Then they head to Holland for another fair, and at one booth, while the vendor is eating lunch and not keeping careful watch, Breitwieser takes a brilliant rendering of a lake bobbing with swans, dated 1620. At another booth, again with the dealer present, he removes a 17th-century seascape painted on copper.

A few weeks later, it's back to Belgium, to a village museum with a single security guard, where he takes a valuable still life, butterflies flitting around a bouquet of tulips, by Flemish master Jan van Kessel the Elder. This is followed by a trip to a Paris auction, where, at the pre-sale show, he steals a painting from the school of Pieter Brueghel the Elder and Pieter Brueghel the Younger, two polestars of Renaissance art.

In the annals of art crime, it's hard to find someone who has stolen from ten different places. By Breitwieser's calculations, he's nearing 200 thefts and 300 stolen objects.

Once again he returns to Belgium—a country whose museums, says Breitwieser, “attract me like a lover”—and filches a vivid tableau of a rural market, then over to Holland to snatch a droll 17th-century watercolor of house cats chasing hedgehogs, followed by a journey to the northern French city of Lille for another Renaissance oil work, and finally, for good measure, one more raid in Belgium.

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All of this in a matter of months. These paintings alone represent a haul worth millions of dollars. And it's not just paintings—he also steals a gold-plated hourglass, a stained-glass windowpane, an iron alms box, a copper collection plate, a brass hunting bugle, a cavalry saber, a couple of daggers, a gilded ostrich egg, a wooden altarpiece, and a half-dozen pocket watches. Everything is crammed into the hideout, filling the walls top to bottom, overflowing the end tables, displayed in his closet's shoe rack, leaning on chairs, stuffed under the bed.

The collection is not random. Virtually everything he steals was made before the Industrial Revolution, in an age when items were all still formed by hand; no machines stamped out parts. Everything finely crafted in this way, Breitwieser believes, from medical instruments to kitchenware, is its own little work of art, the hand of the master visible in each chisel mark and burr. This, to Breitwieser, was the height of human civilization.

Today the world is wed to mass production and efficiency, much to our benefit. But a side effect is that beauty for beauty's sake seems increasingly quaint, and museums themselves, small ones especially, can have the whiff of the dying. Stocking pieces in his room, Breitwieser feels, is rescuing them, like pets from a shelter, giving them the love and attention they deserve.

The more he steals, the better he gets. He learns, with precision, the limits of a security camera's vision. He hones his timing and perfects his composure. “You have to control your gestures, your words, your reflexes,” Breitwieser says. “You need a predatory instinct.” He pounces the instant he senses everyone's attention is diverted. “The pleasure of having,” says Breitwieser, “is stronger than the fear of stealing.”

He tries to take only smaller pieces—with paintings, no more than about a foot by a foot—and if time allows, he prefers to remove the frame and hide it nearby, often in a bathroom, so the artwork disappears more completely beneath his jacket. He purchases new frames for most of the works. Sometimes he steals weapons, but he wouldn't think of brandishing one. To walk into a museum with a gun, he says, is disgusting.

The set of thefts he describes as the most exquisite of his career are a study in simplicity and sangfroid. They take place in Belgium, his beloved target, at the vast Art & History Museum in Brussels, which Breitwieser estimates employs 150 guards. There he and Kleinklaus spot a partly empty display case, with a laminated card inside that reads "Objects removed for study." Nothing in the case interests them, but Breitwieser has an idea and steals the card.

The Historical Museum of Mulhouse.

Rieger Bertrand/Getty Images

Breitwieser understands how security guards think. At age 19, he was employed for a month as a guard at the Historical Museum of Mulhouse, near his home. Most guards, he realized, hardly notice the art on the walls—they look only at people. Breitwieser's brashest thefts, like the Adam and Eve ivory, are spotted in minutes, but when he's furtive, hours often pass, and sometimes days, before anyone realizes what's happened.

In the Brussels Art & History Museum, he carries the "Objects removed" sign to a gallery with a display case of silver pieces from the 16th century. To break into this case, Breitwieser uses a screwdriver and levers the sliding door off its tracks. Other times, he carries a box cutter and slices open a silicone joint. For museums with antique display cabinets, he brings a ring of a dozen old skeleton keys he's amassed—often one of his keys is able to tumble the lock. Also handy is a telescoping antenna, to nudge a ceiling-mounted security camera in a different direction.

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He selects three silver items, a drinking stein and two figurines; then he sets the "Objects removed" card in the case and re-attaches the sliding door, and they leave the museum. They're already at the car before he realizes he's forgotten the lid to the stein.

Breitwieser detests missing parts or any sign of restoration. The items in his collection must be original and complete. Kleinklaus knows this, says Breitwieser, and she abruptly removes one of her earrings and heads back to the museum, her boyfriend in tow. She marches up to a security guard and says she's lost an earring and has a feeling she knows where it is. The couple are permitted back inside. They return to the case and he takes the stein's lid and, why not, two additional goblets from another case.

Two weeks later, they're back. Kleinklaus has changed her hairstyle, and Breitwieser has grown out his beard and added a pair of glasses and a baseball cap. At the display case, the "Objects removed" card still there, he grabs four more items, including a two-foot-tall chalice so breathtakingly gorgeous that Breitwieser suspends his size-limitation preference and, with nowhere else to put it, stuffs the item up the left sleeve of his jacket, forcing him to walk unnaturally, his arm swinging stiffly like a soldier's.

The sheer scale of the thefts is so far beyond that of nearly every other case as to be practically inconceivable.

On their way to the exit, they're stopped by a guard. They feign calm, but Breitwieser has a terrible feeling that the end has come. The guard wants to see their entrance tickets. Breitwieser, unable to move his left arm, awkwardly reaches across his body with his right to fish the tickets from his left pocket. He wonders if the guard senses something amiss.

A guilty person would cower and try to leave, so Breitwieser boldly tells the guard that he's heading to the museum café for lunch. The guard's suspicion is defused, and the couple actually eat at the museum, Breitwieser's arm held rigid the entire time.

They rent a cheap hotel room and wait two days and return yet again, newly disguised, and he steals four more pieces. That's a total of 13, and such is their level of euphoria that on the drive home they can't contain themselves and stop at an antiques gallery displaying an immense ancient urn, made of silver and gold, in the front window.

Breitwieser enters, and the dealer calls from atop a staircase that he'll be right down, but by the time he descends no one is there. Nor is the urn. They return to France plunder-drunk and giddy, and for fun, Breitwieser recalls, Kleinklaus phones the gallery and asks how much the urn in the window costs. About $100,000, she's told. “Madame,” says the dealer, “you really must see it.” He hasn't yet noticed it's gone.

Of course the police are after them. Investigations are opened after many of their thefts—witnesses questioned, sketches made. Yet no one's ever quite sure what they saw. Breitwieser is videoed in action in a museum in France, but the images are grainy. The best the French authorities are able to deduce is that several times a year, in seemingly random places, a man and a woman steal art together; they envision the criminals as a retired couple, nowhere close to their actual age.

The couple themselves keep tabs on their peril by reading newspaper coverage of their crimes. Some articles mention that law enforcement is sure that a large network of international traffickers are systematically stealing. The authorities, much to Breitwieser's satisfaction, seem to have no clue as to whom they are chasing—the sheer scale of the thefts is so far beyond that of nearly every other case as to be practically inconceivable.

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In the annals of art crime, it's hard to find someone who has stolen from ten different places. By the time the calendar flips to 2000, by Breitwieser's calculations, he's nearing 200 separate thefts and 300 stolen objects. For six years, he's averaged one theft every two weeks. One year, he is responsible for half of all paintings stolen from French museums.

By some combination of skill and luck, Breitwieser and Kleinklaus are doing everything right to avoid capture. They constantly shift the countries they target, alternating between rural and urban locations, large museums and small, while further mixing things up by stealing from churches, auction houses, and art fairs. They don't kick down doors or cover their faces with masks—actions that would trigger a much greater police response. Crime works best, Breitwieser believes, when no one realizes it's being committed.

Several times, he steals while they're on a guided tour, then casually continues the tour while holding the item. At an art fair in Holland, Breitwieser hears a shout of “Thief!” and sees security guards tackle a man. It's another burglar. Breitwieser takes advantage of the commotion and slips a painting under his coat.

There are, inevitably, several close calls. Once, Breitwieser accidentally shatters a glass display case. Another time, he returns to his car while holding sections of a 16th-century wooden altarpiece only to encounter a police officer in the process of giving him a parking ticket. While hiding the artwork beneath his jacket, he manages to persuade the officer to withdraw the ticket. Soon after a theft in France, roadblocks are set up on some of the routes leading from the museum, but Breitwieser and Kleinklaus manage to avoid being stopped.

Then they visit an art gallery in Lucerne, Switzerland. It's a hot day, and Breitwieser is not wearing a jacket that he can use to hide a stolen object—and even worse, they are the gallery's only visitors. The place is also directly across the street from a police station. Kleinklaus, according to Breitwieser, issues a warning. “Don't do anything,” she says. “I don't feel it, I'm telling you.”

But Breitwieser has spotted a 17th-century still life by Dutch painter Willem van Aelst that is simply too tempting. And it seems so easy to take. He puts the painting under his arm and walks out as casually as if he's carrying a baguette. A gallery employee instantly spots the theft, accosts the couple outside the gallery, and escorts them across the street to the police. Breitwieser and Kleinklaus remain in custody overnight but manage to convince the authorities that this is the first time they'd ever stolen and that they are terribly, deeply sorry. They are released with hardly any punishment.

Rattled, the couple make a vow never to steal in Switzerland again and decide to take a break from thieving entirely. The respite lasts all of three weeks before Breitwieser, at an auction in Paris, steals a scene of a grape harvest by Flemish painter David Vinckboons. After that, he returns to stealing as frequently as before.

An art thief Breitwieser admires, he says, is Thomas Crown, from the two Thomas Crown Affair movies. But that's fiction. Breitwieser is furious at nearly all actual art thieves, especially people like those who broke into Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. The two thieves took 13 works worth a total of $500 million, but they used knives to slice some of the paintings from their frames. Breitwieser would never consider cutting out a painting—that, he says, is vandalism. He wouldn't even roll up a canvas, an action that risks cracking the paint. “You roll up an old painting,” he says, “and you kill it.”

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About 50,000 artworks are stolen each year around the world, and according to the director of the London-based Art Loss Register, the most comprehensive database of stolen art, more than 99 percent of art thieves are motivated by profit rather than aesthetics. This is why art crimes are typically solved on the back end, when the thieves try to sell the work. But with Breitwieser, law enforcement's chief strategy—poring over art-market data, waiting for the stolen items to reappear—is dead on arrival.

A notion had been building in Kleinhaus that perhaps there's something more fulfilling than life as an outlaw and rooms filled with riches. She begins to feel suffocated.

Still, a multi-million-dollar collection of stolen art concealed in an attic bedroom in a middle-class suburb seems too extraordinary to remain secret forever. If just one friend found out, it's inevitable others would learn and the game would be finished.

Breitwieser and Kleinklaus, though, have no friends. “I've always been a loner,” he says. “I don't want any friends.” Kleinklaus, he claims, feels the same. They occasionally spend time with acquaintances but never invite anyone over. If repairs are needed in his room, he does them himself. Nobody is allowed to enter, ever, except him and his girlfriend. “We lived in a closed universe,” Breitwieser says.

They're both nearing 30 years old when their universe starts to crumble. A notion had been building in Kleinklaus ever since the night they spent in police custody in Switzerland—that perhaps there's something more fulfilling than life as an outlaw and rooms filled with riches. She'd like to start a family. But not, she realizes, with the man she's been dating for almost a decade. There is no option for a child in their conscribed existence. They could be arrested at any minute; they can't even entertain visitors. She begins to feel suffocated.

Breitwieser, meanwhile, says he feels “invincible.” Tension between the two intensifies, ugly fights erupt, and Breitwieser starts stealing alone. Any restraining influences Kleinklaus once provided are shed. From a village church not far from their house, he unbolts an enormous wooden carving of the Madonna and Child, weighing 150 pounds, and hauls it away, one strained step at a time, without the slightest attempt at stealth. If anyone had entered the church during the theft, he'd have been caught.

Later, in February 2001, at a hilltop castle, he removes a monumental 17th-century tapestry, larger than ten feet by ten feet, assuming ridiculous risk to steal it. There's no room in their lair for a trophy this size—it's left rolled up on a dresser—but Breitwieser tells his girlfriend they'll display it as soon as they are free of his mother and residing in a place of their own. By this point, Kleinklaus knows it's a fantasy. Living amid a mountain of stolen art, no matter where, can never offer true freedom at all.

After the police had taken their fingerprints in Switzerland, Breitwieser says, Kleinklaus fears that the prints are now filed in every nation's database. Even if she leaves him, she'll be hunted forever. What will they ever do with all this stuff? What's the endgame? She wants him to quit, but he doesn't even agree to abate. The best deal she can wrangle is a sworn promise that from now on, when stealing, he'll always wear surgical gloves, which she'll bring home from her job at the hospital. There is no endgame, Breitwieser says. He plans to keep going and going.

Albrecht Dürer's gouache of a bat, which dates to 1522, was a prominent component of Breitwieser's illicit collection.

Copyright: www.bridgemanimages.com

He returns from another thieving trip with a little curled bugle, dated from the 1580s, once used by hunters on horseback to communicate. It was a stylish theft, Breitwieser balancing atop a radiator to cut open a display case high on the wall, then delicately snipping the nylon cords holding the bugle in place. Kleinklaus is unimpressed. They already have one like it.

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“Did you wear gloves?” she asks, suspicious.

“I'm really sorry,” he says.

The one thing she'd been promised. Then she learns that he'd stolen the bugle in Switzerland, the one country where they'd vowed never to steal from again. He had even gone to a museum near Lucerne—the same city in which they'd been caught. They argue bitterly, and in the morning Breitwieser says he'll go back to Switzerland and erase the prints.

Breitwieser says that this idea doesn't work for Kleinklaus; she wants to go to the museum and clean the prints herself. It's too risky for him. Breitwieser says that at least he should drive, and she consents.

They're frosty to each other on the trip, but as they pull into the Richard Wagner Museum, housed in a country manor where the composer once lived, their spirits are buoyed. The one thing that can stir Breitwieser as much a magnificent artwork is a sublime sweep of nature, and this museum is on a lake cupped in the spiked mountains of Switzerland. He feels for a moment, as Kleinklaus opens her door, a handkerchief and a bottle of rubbing alcohol in her bag, that maybe they can again find their love.

“Stay in the car,” she pleads.

“I'm just going to take a little walk,” he says. “Don't worry.” And he, too, gets out, handing her the car keys to hold in her purse.

She enters the museum, pays the entry fee, and walks up to the second floor. Breitwieser, circling around the outside of the building, watches her progress as she appears in one window, then another. There's only one other person around, an older man walking a dog, who seems to stare curiously at Breitwieser before moving away.

A few minutes later, Kleinklaus exits the museum. She walks quickly toward him, nearly jogging, which is odd. They never wanted to appear as if they were fleeing. He has the impression that she's attempting to tell him something, but she is too far away to hear. He tries to decipher the anxious expression on her face as the police car pulls to a stop behind him. Two officers approach, handcuff Breitwieser, who is startled but doesn't resist, and place him in the back seat of the squad car and drive off.

The Richard Wagner Museum in Lucerne, Switzerland, where Breitwieser was taken into custody.

Martin Siepmann/Getty Images

He spends that night, November 20, 2001, in jail, and the next morning the interrogation begins. At the start of the questioning, says Breitwieser, he denied everything. After all, he didn't have any stolen items on him when he was arrested. But both the cashier at the museum and the dog walker who'd been on the grounds, says Breitwieser, have provided formal statements to the police.

The dog walker, a retired journalist, had read in that morning's paper about the Richard Wagner Museum theft, and when he saw a man there acting oddly, he went inside and mentioned it to the cashier. She looked out the window. The day the bugle was stolen, a total of three visitors had come to the museum, and this, she was certain, was one of them. He was wearing the same jacket. So she called the police. No one realized that Kleinklaus, who had overheard the conversation and was trying to warn him, had traveled with Breitwieser, and she was able to drive off in her car unnoticed.

Breitwieser realizes that to wriggle free from this jam, he needs to ensure that the authorities do not find out who he really is or send anyone to search his home. He tells the police that he'd come to Switzerland by train, alone, and admits to stealing the bugle. He explains, sorrowfully, that he is short of money and just wanted a nice Christmas gift for his mother. He has no idea, he adds, that the bugle is valuable; he was only attracted to it because of how shiny it was.

A passerby notices a shimmer in the water. He returns with a rake and finds a gold-plated chalice. When the police drain the canal, they discover objects likely worth millions.

In the course of his conversation with the officers, he learns that the police never even considered dusting for prints.

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Days drip by, then weeks, as he waits alone in his cell, worry mounting. He's not permitted to make phone calls, and he has the impression, he says, that the entire world has abandoned him. No one will give him any news.

What's happened is that the police have uncovered the report of Breitwieser's previous brush with the law in Switzerland. This was very intriguing. They'd at first assumed that Breitwieser was nothing more than a small-time thief who'd hoped to make an easy profit from a lightly guarded museum. Could he be something more?

Swiss authorities pursue an international search warrant for Breitwieser's residence in France. It takes a while to complete the warrant, but four weeks after his arrest, it's ready. A group of French and Swiss officers arrive at the house, hoping to find the bugle, and perhaps more. Breitwieser's mother is there and says she has no idea what they're talking about.

The officers enter the house, climb the stairs to the hidden lair, and open the door. And there, inside, they see no hunting bugle, no silver objects, no Renaissance paintings, no musical instruments. Not so much as the trace of a picture hook. Nothing but clean, empty walls surrounding a lovely four-poster bed.

Breitwieser remains in jail, knowing nothing. No one visits or writes. Christmas comes and goes without even a holiday card. He feels sick; he cries frequently. He has admitted to only the theft of the bugle, but he knows that he's close to breaking.

Soon after New Year's Day 2002, he is escorted from his cell and seated in an interrogation room, across the desk from a Swiss police lieutenant named Roland Meier. The officer opens a drawer, removes a single photo, and places it in front of Breitwieser. It's of a large commemorative medal that he had stolen from a different Swiss museum, a week before he'd taken the bugle. Breitwieser had imagined it could serve as a good-luck charm. The medal appears a little rusty and worn, and Breitwieser wonders what happened to it.

“We know you also stole this,” says Lieutenant Meier. “Tell us, and after that everything will be okay. We'll let you go home.”

Breitwieser swiftly confesses.

Just one more thing, says Lieutenant Meier, opening the drawer again and placing another photo before Breitwieser. This one is of a golden snuffbox, also slightly oxidized.

Breitwieser confesses to taking it as well.

And then, according to Breitwieser's version of these events, the officer pulls out a huge stack of photos, and Breitwieser realizes it's checkmate. There are pictures of an ivory flute from Denmark, an enameled goblet from Germany, silver pieces from Belgium, and even the very first item he stole, nearly eight years before—the flint-lock pistol from France.

He confesses to every one of them, providing details and dates. When the stack of photos is exhausted, he's admitted to stealing 140 objects. The lieutenant is staggered—he'd doubted this kid had stolen a single one of the items, let alone all of them.

Only now does Breitwieser see the police report that accompanied the photos. At the top it says “Objects found in the Rhone-Rhine Canal.” He's confused. The canal, part of the system built under Napoleon to connect the rivers of France, is a murky, slow-moving waterway not far from his home.

Then he realizes why the pieces seemed discolored—they must have been rescued from water. One more thing dawns on him as well. There were no photos of any paintings he stole. “What about the paintings?” he asks the lieutenant. And it's only then that he starts to find out.

In a partially-drained section of the Rhone-Rhine Canal, crews search for stolen artwork that had been tossed into the murky water.

What happened exactly remains a mystery. And because Breitwieser's mother and girlfriend have never talked to the media, the details may never be fully revealed. Breitwieser himself, though, has learned as much as he can, and combining his insights with police investigations and interviews, it's possible for him to piece together the events as he believes they may have occurred. Some specifics are lacking, and the precise time line is hazy, but not the result. The end, Breitwieser says, is always the same.

He envisions his girlfriend driving back from Switzerland, alone in the car, terrified. She's just witnessed his arrest and has not been caught herself. At least not yet. When she gets home, Breitwieser suspects, she tells his mother at least some part of the truth about the extent of the crimes. The fact that Breitwieser is in custody means the authorities will surely soon arrive and probably arrest both of them as well.

He aches for what he once was—“a master of the world,” as he puts it—and he weeps for what will never be again. The paintings especially. But also the sheer thrill of it.

It's now, Breitwieser presumes, that his girlfriend takes his mother upstairs to their hideout. When Breitwieser visualizes his treasures through his mother's eyes, they look different. She's not spellbound by color or entranced by beauty. His mother works full-time to house and feed her 30-year-old unemployed son and his girlfriend, and he's repaid her by breaking the law in a way that will likely ruin her life.

To her, his treasure is poison. She's always had a temper, and his mother's reaction, he's sure, is a boiling rage. Once she decides something, there's no bending her will. “She's like a wall,” Breitwieser says. And she makes a decision now, one of finality and force.

It likely began that evening. First, Breitwieser thinks, his mother and possibly his girlfriend clear off the furniture, empty the closet, and collect everything under the bed. It's all piled in bags and boxes, then carried downstairs and crammed into his mother's car until the vehicle is completely full.

It must be very late, Breitwieser believes, when they drive to the canal. They go to a spot where the waterway runs plumb straight through a quiet, rural area, bordered on both sides by sheltering trees, the trail alongside it often busy by day with cyclists and joggers. The two women, Breitwieser thinks, then toss piece after piece into the dark water. Even in these panicked, angry actions, Breitwieser sees a filament of love—his mother, in some way, is trying to protect him, to hide what he's done.

Some pieces aren't thrown far enough from shore, and a few days later a passerby notices an intriguing shimmer in the water. He returns with a rake and finds a gold-plated chalice. Then he rakes out three more pieces of silver and a jewel-handled dagger. He tells the police, and they eventually drain a section of the canal and discover a collection of objects likely worth millions.

Back at Breitwieser's house, probably the same night as the canal dump, his mother and perhaps his girlfriend again load the car, possibly this time with the bigger items, including the heavy Madonna and Child, the tapestry, and three paintings on copper panels. The Madonna and Child is deposited in front of a local church—his mother is observant—while the tapestry is discarded aside a road and the coppers are tossed into a wooded area.

All these items are eventually recovered. A passing motorist spots the tapestry and turns it in to the local police, who are not aware of its significance and unfurl it on the floor of their break room and play billiards on it for a while. The three 17th-century coppers are found by a logger, who brings them home and hammers them onto the roof of his henhouse, which had been leaking. They remain there until Breitwieser's story hits the news.

The paintings, Breitwieser believes, were the final step. His Renaissance paintings formed the heart of his collection and represented the majority of its value. Breitwieser is sure that as the pictures are pulled from the walls, Kleinklaus is in shock—all he'd wanted to do was protect them from an uncaring planet—but his mother, he knows, is unstoppable. Later his mother will purchase putty and wall paint to cover the holes, and she will also throw away everything else in the rooms, including his clothing and books. But for now his mother drives all the paintings to a secluded area.

She creates a big pile, Breitwieser imagines, the portraits and still lifes and landscapes all jumbled, the luminaries of Renaissance art—Cranach, Brueghel, Teniers, Dürer, van Kessel, Dou—gathered as one. Every piece has survived some 300 years, through Europe's bloody centuries, carrying its singular image to the world. Sixty-six paintings in total. In a haphazard heap.

A lighter is sparked and the flames rise, slowly at first and then wildly, oil paint bubbling, picture frames crackling, the great mass burning and burning until there's almost nothing left but ash.

After that, what does anything matter?

Breitwieser is so shattered that he's medicated and placed on suicide watch in the jail. Later he's just numb. He is charged with theft and goes to trial twice, in Switzerland and in France, and serves a total of four years in prison, the punishment modest because no one has been physically injured, and the value of his loot, which some sources placed at over a billion dollars, didn't affect the penalty—in the eyes of the law, there's little difference between mass-produced baubles and Renaissance masterworks.

In prison he meets with several psychologists. He's described in reports as an “arrogant” and “hypersensitive” man who believes he is “indispensable to humankind” but is never given a diagnosis and is not considered mentally ill at his trials. Because he specifically selected his loot, rather than randomly grabbing, and never displayed guilt about his actions, he doesn't fit the criteria for being a kleptomaniac.

Breitwieser's mother goes to trial for her role in destroying the works and is found guilty. She spends just a few months in jail. In court it was stated that she thought it was “just a bunch of junk” and that until her son's arrest, she had no clue he'd been stealing. Breitwieser supports these claims, testifying that his mother is unfamiliar with the art world and that he told her he'd picked up trinkets at flea markets. Even though he'd shared a house with her, he'd made sure, he adds, to keep his mother mostly shut out of his life and completely shut out of his room.

Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus spends just a single night in jail. The story she tells the court strains credulity. She had no idea, she says, that her boyfriend was a thief. “I never played the role of the lookout,” she adds. “There were paintings and objects in his room, but nothing struck me as unusual.” Breitwieser, testifying at the trial, doesn't contradict her, gallantly trying to protect her. If he can spare her some punishment, he will.

He believes his gesture may have worked, at least for her. She is never charged with destroying the art or convicted for direct involvement in the thefts, only for handling and knowledge of the stolen goods. Breitwieser realizes he's still in love and writes her repeatedly from jail. She's his last hope that something worthwhile will remain in his life. But there's never a reply to his letters, and eventually he finds out why. Shortly after his arrest, Kleinklaus had started another relationship, and soon thereafter she was pregnant. By the time Breitwieser learns this, she's the mother of a baby, and he vows never to see her again.

He's released from prison in 2005, and at the age of 33 he feels defeated. He had lived a hundred lifetimes while stealing, and now everything is colorless and dumb. He cuts trees for a while, he drives a delivery truck, he mops floors. The relationship with his mother is mended, though he rents a cheap apartment of his own.

As a result of his crimes, he says, he's not permitted to enter a museum or any other place showing art. He muddles away a couple of years, the bare walls of his apartment a kind of slow-drip torture, until, as it must with a mania like his, the deep-seated desire breaks through.

He goes to Belgium, and at an antiques fair, he sees a landscape that slays him—three people strolling through a wintry forest, by one of his favorites, Pieter Brueghel the Younger. He doesn't even try to stop himself and finds that his skills are still sharp.

With the painting hanging in his apartment, suddenly there's joy in his life. “One beautiful piece,” he says, “makes everything different.” A relationship blooms with a woman he's met, and he admits to her what he's done. She seems to accept the one theft—and, he insists, it's just this one theft—but when the romance ends, she informs the police, and Breitwieser is put in prison again.

By the time he gets out, he's 41 years old, creases at his eyes and a hairline in retreat. He has an idea that he'll launch a career as a museum-security consultant, but he's the only one who doesn't find this a joke. To hell with everyone, he thinks. “I can live on an island like Robinson Crusoe and it wouldn't bother me,” he says. He eats lunch most days with his mother and then wanders alone in the woods.

The problem is that he knows exactly what he wants. Just one more sensual blast like the thump he felt every time he unlocked the door to his lair. But when he closes his eyes and tries to conjure the scene, all he can see is a fire.

Then one day in early 2018, he comes across a brochure for the Reubens House Museum. And there it is, like a slap in the face—a photo of the Adam and Eve ivory, the first thing he'd once regarded every morning. It had been thrown in the canal, but ivory is sturdy and it hadn't been damaged. Now the piece is evidently back on display.

Just looking at the photo pries open some box inside him that he'd hoped had been forever sealed. He's not sure if he ever wants to see the ivory again or if he has to run immediately to the museum. For more than a month, he fights an internal battle before deciding that he needs to go.

In 2018, Breitweiser returned to the Reubens House Museum in Belgium and came face-to-face with the Adam and Eve ivory sculpture that he had stolen two decades prior. The ivory had been recovered, undamaged, from the Rhone-Rhine Canal.

Michael Finkel

He travels to Belgium, enters the Rubens House Museum, and heads to the rear gallery. And there it is, in the same spot, in a reinforced case. Twenty-one years have elapsed since he'd stolen it, but the ivory's power to enchant is unlimited. Breitwieser leans forward, knees bent, so that his face is directly in front of the carving. His eyes widen, his forehead scrunches—the look on his face a jumble of awe and distress. An electric intensity seems to build in him until it appears as if he's ready to combust.

He doesn't want to make a scene in the gallery, so he hurries out to the museum's courtyard. The air is warm, spring is coming. He shuffles foot to foot on the pale cobblestones; the wisteria on the walls is just starting to bud. The last time he'd been here, the ivory was under his jacket. This time he stands with nothing at all, tears blurring his eyes, mourning the lost years of his life—not when he was stealing, but since he's stopped.

He says he only realizes now, in hindsight, what he couldn't possibly have known then: His previous visit to this museum may have marked the high point of his entire life. The absolute pinnacle.

He aches for what he once was—“a master of the world,” as he puts it—and he weeps for what will never be again. The paintings especially. But also the sheer thrill of it. “Art has punished me,” he says.

Then he heads to the exit, through the gift shop, where the museum catalog is sold, with a photo of the ivory and a story of its theft. He has no cash—just to get here, he'd borrowed gas money from his mother—and out of habit he notes the positions of the cashier, the security guard, the customers. He checks to see if there are any security cameras. There aren't. He picks up a copy of the catalog and walks discreetly out the door.

Just recently, in early February of 2019, Breitwieser was arrested yet again. French police had reportedly been suspicious for several years that Breitwieser had resumed stealing and searched his residence in northern France. There, French authorities allegedly discovered Roman coins and other objects that police say may have been taken from museums in France and Germany. Breitwieser is currently incarcerated, pending further investigation, and has yet to respond to these newest allegations.

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