One of the most prolific art thieves has been arrested…again

One of the most prolific art thieves has been arrested…again
Stéphane Breitwieser c. 2006. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Literal buckets of cash were found after raiding the house of Stéphane Breitwieser’s mother following his most recent arrest. Last week, Breitwieser was busted once again, this time in Alsace. Since 2016, authorities have been onto Breitwieser’s, who the Guardian once referred to as ‘the world’s most consistently successful art thief,’ trail after he tried to sell a 19th-century paperweight on eBay. The paperweight, among other items, was stolen by Breitwieser from the Saint Louis museum of crystal ware in France, which is owned by Hermès. Police later found €163,000 ($184,000) in cash at his mother’s house along with Roman coins and other stolen items from local and German museums at his own home in Marmoutier.

Over the course of Breitwieser’s prolific career in art theft, it’s estimated that he’s stolen hundreds of artworks and artefacts, but not in any high-tech, cinema-worthy manner. No, this seasoned art thief’s modus operandi is simply picking up an object and walking out with it. His girlfriend often accompanied him keeping watch as Breitwieser worked and he would then store most of the stolen goods at his mother’s house.

After his first arrest in 2001, Breitwieser confessed to stealing nearly 250 works from galleries, museums, and auction houses. His mother subsequently destroyed around 100 of the artworks, taken between 1995 and 2001, in an attempt to diminish the evidence against her son. She dumped countless works into nearby canals and threw others in the trash. She deposited one sculpture of the Virgin Mary, though, at a rural chapel as opposed to destroying it in a supposed act of piety. Breitwieser served a three-year stint in prison but it seems to have affected him minimally, hence his most recent offenses.

After his release from prison, Breitwieser took to pen and paper recording an autobiography, which was published in 2006 capitalizing on his unlawful history. Confessions d’un Voluer d’Art (Confessions of a Art Thief) recounts his life from his own perspective. Breitwieser began stealing as a poor student at local flea markets before trying his luck at museums in his 20s. His keen ability to elude authorities lead to his consistent stealing spree hitting all kinds of institutions in France, Switzerland, Germany, and a number of other countries. At times, he was strike multiple times in a week as opposed to lying low in between heists. Since the release of his autobiography, Breitwieser has been arrested twice more, making his most recent run-in with authorities his third.

In addition to stealing and selling items through the channels of the black-market art trade, Breitwieser also created a collection of his own, which he sourced from 172 places he hit through his career. In all, it’s estimated that the items he stole totaled to around $1.4 billion.