Stephane Breitwieser: The Truth About The Art Thief Who Stole $1.4 Billion

If nothing else, Hollywood really loves a good heist story. From Audrey Hepburn’s Nicole Bonnet trying to steal a forgery before it gets sold in 1966’s “How to Steal a Million” to George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and crew stealing a cool $160 million from a casino in 2001’s “Ocean’s Eleven,” there truly is nothing more exciting than getting away with that one big score. But Stéphane Breitweiser, a notorious French thief, has a heist tale that rivals any, fictional or otherwise (via GQ).

In 1994, while visiting the Musée des Amis de Thann (via Daily Beast) located in Alsace, France, Breitweiser spotted an antique pistol on display (via GQ). At the age of 22, Breitweiser considered himself a lover of all things art (via The New York Times). While standing before the ancient weapon, hand-carved in 1730, with his girlfriend Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus looking out, Breitweiser reached out, opened the glass case, and grabbed the pistol (via GQ). With no security system and no guards, Breitweiser and Kleinklaus left the museum, unaccosted.

steal what you love

Since that fateful day in 1994, Breitweiser has amassed one of the largest caches of stolen art the world has ever seen (or, you know, not seen in a while). According to The New York Times, Breitweiser had amassed a collection of art that experts placed a value on of upwards of $1.4 billion. Among the treasures, rare coins, and expensive jewelry were paintings by Corneille de Lyon, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and Pieter Brueghel the Younger. 

In total, Stéphane Breitweiser collected 60 paintings and 112 assorted rare objects. In November of 2001, Breitweiser was apprehended by authorities leaving a museum in Lucerne, Switzerland (via NBC News). Charged with stealing a bugle dated back to the 14th century, Breitweiser was caught going back to the scene of the crime to remove any fingerprints he may have left behind when he initial swiped the bugle (via The New York Times).

art desecrated

While the stealing of priceless art was no laughing matter, the worst was still yet to come. Stéphane Breitweiser’s mother, Mireille Stengel, took matters into her own hands when she learned her son had been arrested.  

According to GQ, Stengel and his girlfriend Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus (at least, according to Breitweiser), began destroying the priceless cache. Paintings were burned and destroyed in hopes of getting rid of the evidence. Ancient tapestries carelessly tossed into the woods along with coins and jewelry being dumped into a nearby canal. While many of the objects were recovered, most of the paintings were not. For the theft and destruction of $1.4 billion worth of art, Stéphane Breitweiser was sentenced to 26 months in prison; his mother, Mireille, received a sentence of 18 months, and girlfriend Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus was given a term of 6 months in prison for acting as a look out (via NBC News).

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