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Monday, September 30, 2019

Stéphane Breitwieser

Stéphane Breitwieser, (between prison terms) with one of his most valuable art thefts. François Boucher’s The Sleeping Shepherd was destroyed in a garbage disposal.

Jean-Antoine Watteau.
Whatever else you might say or
think of Breitwieser, he had
 impeccable tastes in art.
Art is a valuable commodity. And, like all com-modities, some art is more valuable than most. Like all things valuable art should be secured. My art, and most other art, is secured by a wire (or bracket) in back and a hook on the wall. That and locks on our doors make my art about as secure as it needs to be. On a few occasions unscrupulous dealers and others have breached that security when my work was on public display. I think I've lost maybe a half-dozen paintings that way. But this is not about me or my art, or even most art. No, I'm talking about art commodities with prices running in the range of seven, or eight, or even nine figures, and specifically one Frenchman who ranks near the top of the list of prolific all-time art thieves--Stephane (the "e" is silent) Breitwieser.
Francois Boucher, one of
Breitwieser's favorite artists.
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. He would then steal one or two carefully selected pieces. Usually they would be small paintings, sculptures, wea-pons, and musical instruments which could easily to be placed under his jacket. Some of the artwork stolen were from the 16th-18th centuries and in-cluded paintings by the Dutch portrait painter Corneille de Lyon, Flemish Pieter Brueghel the Younger, German Lucas Cranach the Elder (below), as well as French painters François Boucher (right} and Jean-Antoine Watteau (Above, left).
Sybille of Cleves (detail), 1524, Lucas Cranach the Elder.
The painting was valued at between £4.2 million and £4.7 million.
There have, of course, been dozens of major art thefts down through the centuries, some of them far more scandalous than Breitwieser's. In 1911, a Louvre employee, Vincenzo Peruggia swiped the Mona Lisa (which, is priceless). He kept it in his apartment for over two years then foolishly tried to sell it to Florence's Uffizi Museum. He served just six months in prison. In July 2002, Paraguay hosted the most valuable art exhibition in its history. Then a group of criminals broke in and stole five paintings. They gained entry by way of a tunnel some eighty feet long. They made off with over a million dollars worth of art. On February. 12, 2008, three men walked into the E.G. Bürle Foundation museum in Zurich, Switzerland. Their masterpieces didn't stand a chance. In broad daylight, one man pulled a gun while the other two grabbed the four paintings closest to the door. The four paintings together were worth approximately $163-million. On March 18, 1990, two thieves disguised as police officers entered Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in the middle of the night, telling guards they were investigating a disturbance. They made off with 13 works of art, worth approximately $163 million including paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Manet. The museum offered a $5-million reward as the FBI launched a massive investigation, but the pieces and burglars remain at large. As astounding as those figures sound, they amount to "peanuts" as compared to Breitwieser's lifetime haul. His take has been estimated at some $1.4 billion dollars.
The Sleeping Shepherd, 1730, Francois Boucher
You read that right...that's BILLION...with a "B". Breitwieser stole 139 works from 172 galleries, auction houses, and museums in Switzerland, France, and Germany, among other places. One would have to draw upon the Nazis plunder European art (1933-1945) of 516,000 pieces worth and estimated $20-billion to surpass the sheer magnitude of Breitwieser's figures. Moreover, Hitler had an entire army scouring the greatest art collections in Europe. In contrast, Breitwieser was just one man (his girlfriend was a part-time accomplice). After the war and in the decades that followed all but a few of Hitler's art booty was recovered. That was not the case with Breitwieser. Unfortunately, following his initial arrested in 2001, Breitwieser's mother, in an attempt to minimize evidence that might be used against her son, is thought to have thrown away dozens of paintings and drawings, and dumped more than a hundred works into a canal (below). Over 100 items were successfully recovered. However, this left over 100 that were lost. The Sleeping Shepherd (above) was ripped to shreds by a garbage disposal.
A painting depicting the scene as army workers scour the banks of the Rhone-Rhine Canal in search of paintings which may have been dumped there by Breitwieser's mother.
Breitwieser's crimes were more in the nature of shoplifting than what we've come to know as daring art heists. Yet, when it comes to stealing from museums, Stéphane Breitwieser is virtually peerless. He was one of the most prolific and successful art thieves who 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. 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, Breitwieser adds. Once inside, 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. In 2001, Stéphane Breitwieser was finally arrested after stealing at a museum in Lucerne, Switzerland when he returned after stealing a musical instrument only a few days earlier. 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 from which they were stolen. His mother later claimed that she had no idea they were stolen and thought they were all purchased legally at auction. Interestingly, Stéphane Breitwieser had no intention of selling any of the items. He was simply stealing them for the purpose of building a grand collection for himself.
Portrait of Johann Friedrich, Elector of Saxony, and
Portrait of Princess Emilie of Saxony, both by Lucas Cranach the elder,
were among the works stolen by Breitwieser.
Stephane Breitwieser was given only a three-year prison sentence for his crimes. He served two. His mother was also given three years, serving 18 months. Breitwieser's girlfriend was given an 18-month sentence and served just six months. In 2011 Breitwieser was again arrested after being caught with 30 stolen artworks at his home. He was given another three-year prison sentence. To insure his insolvency, Breitwieser put all his money in accounts belonging to his relatives. Thus he has never reimbursed the victims of his theft. The municipalities of Orleans, Dunkirk, Copenhagen, and others have never received a cent. Meanwhile Breitwieser published a book titled, Confessions of an Art Thief for which he is said to have received an advance of some 73,000 euros.

I wonder if it made the "Book of the Month Club?"


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