Stéphane Breitwieser: Stealing 239 artworks from 172 museums

stephane breitwieser stolen art
Lucas Cranach the Elder's portrait of Sybille, Princess of Cleves was cut from its frame when stolen

Stéphane Breitwieser is a French art thief who over a period of six years between 1995 and 2001 stole 239 different pieces of fine art from museums across Europe, worth approximately $2 Billion USD. Most of the art was later destroyed.

In an attempt to build a personal collection of priceless art, Stéphane Breitwieser visited small museums, castles, auction houses and private collections which had low security and would steal one or two carefully selected pieces, usually being small paintings, sculptures, weapons and musical instruments which were easily able to be placed under his jacket.

stephane breitwieser
Stephane Breitwieser after his release

His girlfriend at the time, Anne-Catherine Kleinklauss was present for a number of the thefts, often keeping watch.

Some of the artwork stolen was from the 16th-18th century and included paintings by Dutch portrait painter Corneille de Lyon, Flemish Pieter Brueghel the Younger, German Lucas Cranach the Elder, as well as French painters François Boucher and Jean-Antoine Watteau.

François Boucher
François Boucher

Stéphane Breitwieser was finally arrested after stealing over 200 antiquities at a museum in Lucerne, Switzerland when he returned after stealing a musical instrument only a few days earlier, where a security guard recognized him and made an immediate arrest.

The stolen goods were found to be kept in a room at his mother’s house, which had blackout curtains so that the light did not damage any of the pieces – many of which had been cut out of their frames from the museums of which they were stolen from. His mother later claimed that she had no idea they were stolen and that thought they were all purchased legally at auction.

Interestingly, Stéphane Breitwieser had no intention of selling any of the items and was rather stealing for the purpose of building a grand collection, one of the finest in Europe for himself.

Jean-Antoine Watteau
Jean-Antoine Watteau

After the arrest of his son, Breitwieser’s mother began destroying most of the items, by cutting up the oil paintings, some via her garbage disposal unit, as well as by smashing ceramics, and throwing various statues, jewelry, and other more solid items into a nearby river.

Authorities, after realizing what had happened began a large-scale operation to recover as much of the art as quickly as possible with fears that it was all lost. They began searching the property for all signs of destroyed art, including dredging the nearby river after some of the pieces washed ashore. Over 100 items were successfully recovered, however, this did leave over 100 lost.

François Boucher's The Sleeping Shepherd
François Boucher’s The Sleeping Shepherd was sadly destroyed in a garbage disposal

Stéphane Breitwieser’s mother claimed that she had no idea that the artworks were stolen after being accused of destroying evidence, and that she destroyed the items only out of anger for her son after being arrested. She also said that she had no idea of the value of the items, which was estimated to be approximately two Billion USD at the time.

Breitwieser was given only a three-year prison sentence for his crimes and served two, his mother was also given three years, serving 18 months and his girlfriend was given an 18-month sentence and served just six months.

After his release from prison Stéphane Breitwieser published a book, “Confessions of an Art Thief” and in 2011 was again arrested after being caught with 30 stolen artworks in his home, given another three-year prison sentence.

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