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"The Art Thief" | Reviewed by Chris Stuckenschneider

Updated: Jul 31, 2023

While fiction is my preferred genre, I do enjoy narrative non-fiction too— “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” “Hidden Valley Road,” “Devil in the White City,” “Educated” and more. The authors of narrative non-fiction have to corral their research and balance it with creativity and storytelling. Michael Finkel carries this balance through to perfection in his riveting new book, “The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime and a Dangerous Obsession.”

I approached this one with preconceived notions. It would be about a crook who steals artwork from museums and sells it to get rich. But that wasn’t the case with Stéphane Breitwieser who was an artwork thief, yet never sold anything in his collection. In 10 years, he masterminded 200 heists, amassing artwork estimated at $2 billion dollars.

The young man stashed his treasures in an attic room he shared with his co-conspirator and girlfriend Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus. The lovers, while lying in bed, would admire the oil paintings, or precious objects they’d stolen.

Breitwieser and Kleinklaus robbed museums, castles, and churches in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, and other countries. They would play the part of art connoisseurs or admiring tourists, gazing with interest at oil paintings, ivory sculptures, and the like. Then right under the noses of security guards Brietwieser would steal “ that (stirred) him emotionally, and seldom the most valuable piece in a place.” Clad in roomy clothes, he’d stuff the pilfered artwork up a sleeve, into a pocket, or down his trousers, while Kleinklaus served as lookout.

The methods the crafty pair used to secure their treasures, and the chances Breitwieser took to feed his obsession for beautiful things, is fascinating. So too, is the “why” behind Breitwieser’s insatiable drive—his illogical belief that he was morally superior to common art thieves, he, after all, was an art expert, a collector, who valued the aesthetics of art and would never damage work he was stealing. Breitwieser wasn’t a sociopath, yet he felt “no remorse” in hitting up places where art was on display, believing museums were “really just prisons for art.”

While Breitwieser had an unusual relationship with his mother, who spoiled him, and as a child was traumatized by his parents’ divorce, psychologists offered no concrete reason for his behavior when they examined him after he got caught. His carelessness and “thumb-your-nose-at-em” attitude proved to be his downfall.

“The Art Thief” is a superlative read about a quirky, wholly original, deviant, but clever individual. Photographs of some of the artwork from Breitwieser's collection are included in the book, which is helpful. As is “A Note on the Reporting” which details Finkel’s interviews with Breitwieser. It took the author years to get Breitwieser to talk with him. When Breitwieser finally agreed, the two spent extensive time together—their interaction leads to some interesting, at times comical, anecdotes.

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