How a Frenchman Stole Two Billion Dollars’ Worth of Art

His crime spree makes for a thrilling read—but why do heist stories steal our hearts, anyway?
Someone in black leaving a room full of frames on the walls.
Michael Finkel’s “The Art Thief, ” like its subject, has confidence, élan, and a great sense of timing; it also reveals much about the limitations of museum security.Illustration by Gérard DuBois

The first thing Stéphane Breitwieser steals from Belgium’s Art & History Museum is an index card. Folded in half and set inside a partially empty display case, it reads, in French, “Objects Removed for Study.” The museum contains one of the largest collections of art and antiquities in Europe, but Breitwieser immediately recognizes that, for his purposes, its most valuable item is the notecard. He jimmies open the case, pockets the card, and, together with his girlfriend and accomplice, Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus, strolls onward. To anyone who happens to notice them, they look like a happy, art-loving young couple enjoying a date at a museum, which, in a sense, they are.

A few rooms later, another display case catches Breitwieser’s eye. This one is filled with fantastically ornate sixteenth-century silver objects, including goblets, chalices, and a miniature warship. The lock, he notices, is high end but poorly installed; he smacks the top and the cylinder drops out of its housing and into the display case. Breitwieser helps himself to two chalices and a tankard, then sets the index card down where they used to be. Only when he and Kleinklaus have reached his car does he realize that he has left the lid of the tankard behind. That won’t do. He is an aesthetic perfectionist; a topless tankard will be a torment to him. Kleinklaus knows this about her boyfriend and, although he is usually the improvisational genius, she can hold her own when circumstances require it. She takes out one of her earrings and returns to the entrance, Breitwieser in tow. When she shows the guard her remaining earring and says she thinks she knows where she lost the other one, he lets them both back inside. At the display case, Breitwieser takes the tankard lid, along with—why not?—two additional goblets.

They return two weeks later. The index card is still in the case. So is the warship, which Breitwieser puts in Kleinklaus’s purse. Then, from the same display, he nicks a two-foot-tall chalice, which he stuffs up the sleeve of his coat, making it impossible to bend his left arm. The pair are on their way to the exit when a guard asks to see their tickets. Kleinklaus’s is at the bottom of her purse, beneath the ship. Breitwieser’s is in his left pocket, which he can’t access with his left hand. He reaches across his body, like a man drawing a sword, fishes out the ticket, hands it to the guard, and explains that they’re just headed to the museum café to grab a bite to eat. The guard waves them on, and they go to the café, sit down with their ill-gotten goods, and have lunch.

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Two days later, they come back for more, bringing the total number of artifacts they have stolen from that single display to eleven. Aside from the “Objects Removed for Study” card, the case is now almost empty. On their way out of town, they stop at an antique shop whose front window boasts a beautiful seventeenth-century silver-and-gold urn. Later, back home, Kleinklaus phones the shop and asks how much the urn costs. Around a hundred thousand dollars, the owner tells her, but it’s worth it. “Madame,” he says, “you really must see it.” But of course, by then, the urn is no longer in his window. It is in a modest house in an industrial town in eastern France, in the attic rooms occupied by Breitwieser, Kleinklaus, and some two billion dollars’ worth of stolen art.

All this is recounted, thrillingly, in “The Art Thief” (Knopf), by the journalist Michael Finkel. It is his third book, and also the third one to search for meaning—moral, aesthetic, existential—in criminal acts. This is an interest he comes by honestly, or, more precisely, dishonestly. In 2002, Finkel, who was then a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine, plummeted from grace when the protagonist of an article he wrote, about allegations of child slavery on West African cocoa plantations, turned out to be a composite character. The Times fired him and soon afterward published a lengthy correction, which took his transgressions from private to public and took a sledgehammer to his reputation.

An hour and a half before that correction ran, Finkel got a phone call from a fellow-reporter. To his surprise, confusion, relief, and horror, the man was not calling about his journalistic offenses; he was calling to ask if Finkel was aware that someone named Christian Longo, who was accused of and would later confess to murdering his wife and three young children in Oregon, had recently been captured in Mexico, where he had adopted the identity of a writer he admired—Michael Finkel of the Times Magazine. Real and faux Finkel began to correspond, and both men’s misdeeds became fodder for the writer’s first book, “True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa.” A dozen years later, Finkel published “The Stranger in the Woods,” an account of a man named Christopher Knight, who, for twenty-seven years, lived in the forests of central Maine entirely outdoors and alone, getting by on the haul from a decades-long burglary streak that kept him in both necessities and luxuries: food, clothing, batteries, propane tanks, sleeping bags, mattresses, books, television sets, handheld games.

Now comes “The Art Thief,” which documents a different kind of crime, one that circumvents both the moral horror of murder and the mundanity of petty theft. From 1994 to 2001, Breitwieser, working mostly with Kleinklaus but sometimes alone, stole at a pace unprecedented in the history of art: roughly three out of four weekends per year for eight years, resulting in some three hundred purloined works of art. He plied his craft during business hours, in museums and galleries and auction houses, with tourists and docents and security guards milling around. He never wore a mask and rarely disguised himself at all. He carried no weapons, never hurt anyone, and never threatened to hold anyone hostage. He did not use the art he stole to fund other illegal activities or sustain an extravagant life style. He simply took it home to those attic rooms and admired it.

As illegal activities go, the crime spree of Stéphane Breitwieser was decorous, electrifying, and, for all its outrageousness, familiar. As a form of entertainment, “The Art Thief” has less in common with Finkel’s earlier books than with movies such as “Ocean’s Eleven.” Like that film, it unmistakably belongs to the genre of the heist, a category of entertainment so fun and frictionless that it is easy to skate right past the obvious question it raises. Why, given our over-all disapproval of theft, are stories about heists so appealing—to so many of us, and specifically to Michael Finkel?

Aheist, to be clear, is not a legal category. If you are caught with a Rembrandt in your raincoat on the way out of the Louvre, you will not be charged with attempted heist. The term is pure slang, coined in America in the nineteen-twenties, a high-water decade for crimes of all kinds. It likely comes from “hoist,” either in the sense of hoisting someone up to shimmy through a window or in that other sense of picking something up, the one implied by “shoplifting.” But no one has ever described the pilfering of a can of Red Bull and a pack of condoms as a heist; indeed, real-life crimes are only infrequently characterized that way. For the most part, “heist” suggests less a specific illegal action than the form of entertainment that depicts it.

Although the heist genre shares a border with mystery novels, spy novels, true crime, and crime fiction, it has its own distinctive conventions, the first of which is that the object of the theft must be spectacularly valuable. Steal thirty thousand dollars or a Rolex watch and it’s a crime; steal thirty million dollars or the Hope Diamond and it’s a heist. Second, that object must be taken from an institution of significant standing. Heists do not occur at Sunoco stations or suburban homes; they happen in banks, preferably on Wall Street, or museums, preferably the Met. Third, the theft must be borderline impossible. That’s why every heist plot pauses at some point to explain why, for instance, the thieves have to rob not one casino but three at the same time (as in Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 remake of the aforementioned “Ocean’s Eleven,” among the most genre-satisfying of all heist films), or why they have to steal not one car but fifty in less than three days (as in the 2000 remake of “Gone in 60 Seconds,” which features Nicolas Cage and Angelina Jolie in what you might call a car-studded cast: among others, an Aston Martin, a Ferrari Testarossa, a Lamborghini Diablo, a Bentley Arnage, and a 1967 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500). Give or take some paraphrasing, in almost every heist story someone says, “It can’t be done.”

But it can, of course; you just need the right criminals. That’s the fourth convention of the heist: assembling a team. Its members are typically underworld all-stars, each one the master of a highly specialized skill: picking pockets, counting cards, hacking computers, back-flipping over motion detectors, strolling into Sotheby’s with so much savoir faire as to seem like a legitimate customer. Collectively, they illustrate the point, made by, of all people, Aristotle, that just as there are outstanding doctors and musicians there are also “perfect thieves,” who “have no deficiency in respect of the form of their peculiar excellence.” According to a fifth convention, however, when we first encounter these perfect thieves they are wasting their talents on petty chicanery or attempts at moral rectitude; a sixth convention is that at least one of them has retired and must be dragged back into a life of crime for one last irresistible gig. (In a nice meta move, Soderbergh came out of retirement to direct “Logan Lucky”—essentially an Appalachian “Ocean’s Eleven,” in which the West Virginian protagonists set out to rob a Nascar speedway.)

Perhaps the most crucial convention of the heist story, however, is that, despite possessing so many illicit aptitudes, the thieves must barely seem like criminals. Often, they reassure us that they steal for pleasure rather than for profit, delighting either in the work itself or in the specific item they are stealing. (“I didn’t do it for the money,” Cage’s character declares in “Gone in 60 Seconds.” “I did it for the cars.”) When the thieves are motivated by profit, their victims are presented as so wealthy and corrupt that they deserve to be robbed. Per the logic of Robin Hood, it’s appropriate to steal from the rich as long as you redistribute the bounty to the poor; per the logic of the heist, it’s appropriate to steal from the rich because they are rich. The implication—a comfortable one in today’s one-per-cent world—is that anyone affluent enough to own so much desirable stuff didn’t come by it honestly, either.

In short, in a heist story the bad guys are basically the good guys. At worst, they are cheerfully and debonairly amoral (as in “Ocean’s Eight,” the all-female entry in the franchise, whose plot involves an ethically indefensible but nonetheless enjoyable theft at the Met Gala of a whole lot of bling); at best, they are righting some grievous wrong (as in “Inside Man,” where the target of the heist is a Nazi collaborator). Much of the time, though, they are either robbing other criminals (as in “The Italian Job”), for whom one can have only so much sympathy, or simply getting their due (as in “Logan Lucky,” where the heisters retain just enough of their haul to leave behind their hardscrabble lives). In keeping with this ethic of ethicalness, many heists are bloodless, or largely so; if they deal out violence or death at all, it is only to the truly wicked.

Not all of these conventions appear in every heist story, of course, but taken together they define an identifiable category while allowing for endless riffing. Wes Anderson’s 2009 animated film “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is a heist narrative, as is the 2008 documentary “Man on Wire,” about Philippe Petit’s illegal tightrope walk between the Twin Towers—a planning-filled, panache-filled, victimless crime at a major institution. Heists of all kinds also appear in books of all kinds: in fiction that ranges from the potboilerish (Gerald A. Browne’s “11 Harrowhouse”) to the ambitious (Colson Whitehead’s “Harlem Shuffle”), and in nonfiction that details the theft of valuable goods from the obvious to the absurd: gold, diamonds, pearls, cash, rare books, rare maps, rare feathers, rocks from the moon.

Elephant squirrel and bird sharing mixed nuts at a bar.
“And to think, if it weren’t for this little bowl of mixed nuts, none of us would have met.”
Cartoon by Jared Nangle

Of all the priceless objects in the world, however, perhaps none lend themselves so well to the heist narrative as works of art. That’s not just because art is expensive, housed in grand institutions, and difficult to steal. It is also because anyone motivated to steal art—for art’s sake, as the convention dictates—seems intrinsically refined, the kind of genteel thief whose moral lapses are overshadowed by excellent taste. This idealized criminal reached its fictional apotheosis in the 1999 version of “The Thomas Crown Affair” (another remake, like many good heist movies), which stars Pierce Brosnan as an art thief so charming and cultivated that the insurance investigator tasked with trying to catch him falls in love with him instead. But, as the actual people responsible for catching art thieves understand, Thomas Crown is not merely fictional but also fantastical. A thief like him—daring and skilled, but also motivated by aesthetics and deeply knowledgeable about art—is a figment of our collective imagination: so virtually every police officer, detective, and museum-security expert would have told you, until Stéphane Breitwieser came along.

How does such a highly improbable person come to exist? The backstory, Finkel tells us, is this: Breitwieser was a troubled and solitary young man who, via the divorce of his parents, fell from the upper classes—a life of boating on Lake Geneva and skiing in the Alps—to a considerably lower rung of society. For him, the symbol of that fall and its essential injustice was that he went from enjoying a home filled with high art and antique weaponry to living with his mother in an apartment decorated with cheap movie posters and, horror of horrors, ikea furniture. After graduating from high school, he flitted from job to job, beginning with a brief stint as a museum guard, the last day of which he celebrated by stealing a fifteen-hundred-year-old Merovingian belt buckle. Eventually, he met and fell in love with Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus, a nurse’s aide with good taste and a calm demeanor, who later moved in with him in the attic rooms of his mother’s new home—small, but an upgrade from the apartment. The couple enjoyed visiting museums together, and one day, at a little one in an Alsatian village, they admired a flintlock pistol whose chief virtue, from Breitwieser’s perspective, was that it was nicer than any his father owned. She urged him to take the pistol and he did; they got away with it, and got a taste for it.

Unlike most art thieves but very much like a classic heist hero, Breitwieser steals art because he loves it. He spends his free time reading histories of art, biographies of artists, and catalogues raisonnés, and he tells Finkel that beautiful objects should be liberated from the “prison” of museums so that they can be experienced appropriately: at length, up close, in the privacy of his bedroom. Almost any of the works he steals could net him a small fortune, and plenty of them—a Brueghel, a Watteau, a Lucas Cranach the Elder—are worth a large one, yet he refuses to sell any. Instead, he lives off his mother’s patience, his girlfriend’s meagre salary, and intermittent low-wage jobs, leaving him so short on money that, Finkel writes, “even on getaway drives he avoids paying highway tolls.” But then, Breitwieser isn’t big on getaway drives in the first place; like the classic heist hero, he disapproves of haste, violence, and drama of all kinds. The best theft, to his mind, is not so much stylish as invisible.

In one crucial respect, however, Breitwieser is nothing like Thomas Crown. Most heist narratives feature plans so elaborate that they constitute much of the plot, but Breitwieser generally undertakes his thefts with no real forethought. He simply spots something he likes in a museum or, sometimes, in a museum brochure or an auction catalogue; either way, only once he is standing in front of the object of his desire does he devise a strategy for stealing it. Part of what makes Finkel’s book so much fun is that, without exception, those strategies are insane. To be specific, some are insanely risky: when Breitwieser realizes that a crossbow he covets is hanging by a wire from the ceiling, too high to reach, he drags a chair the length of the weapons hall, climbs on top, and unhitches the bow from the wire. Others are insanely simple: when a security camera turns out to be aimed at the work he wants to steal, he just keeps his back to the lens throughout the theft. Others are insanely spontaneous: when he and Kleinklaus are attending the European Fine Art Fair, a venue full of both undercover and uniformed security, a more foolhardy thief attempts to steal something and is promptly apprehended. Without any premeditation, Breitwieser takes advantage of the moment—the melee, the rubbernecking, the guards all flocking to the scene—to nick an extremely valuable Renaissance painting.

How does he pull off such thefts again and again? With shocking minimalism. There is no rappelling from roofs, no triggering of fire alarms, no high-tech devices to shut down security systems. His gear consists chiefly of a Swiss Army knife and, weather permitting, an overcoat. Kleinklaus stands lookout, giving him a nod when all is clear and coughing when trouble is coming. He uses the knife to slice open the silicone seal on display cases, unscrew art work from its base (in one instance, extracting thirty screws in a single visit, one patient turn at a time), and pry off the nails holding paintings in their frames—never to cut the canvas itself, an act he regards with abhorrence. Then, with precise timing, fleetness of motion, and the courage of his convictions, he picks up the object, stashes it in Kleinklaus’s bag or on his person, and unhurriedly makes his way to the exit.

As all this suggests, you learn a lot from “The Art Thief” about the limitations of museum security. One is built into the nature of the institution: unlike banks, museums must keep their valuables where the public can see them. Moreover, they must minimize the barriers between the viewer and the work. It would be difficult to steal a painting that had iron bars in front of it, like the windows of a ground-floor Manhattan apartment, but it would also be difficult to enjoy it. Another problem is that security systems are expensive, and most museums, especially smaller local ones, are reluctant to allocate money to upgrade them. As a result, many museums have far fewer effective safeguards than you might imagine.

For these reasons, museum security relies heavily on the intuition and attentiveness of employees, who, like all of us, can be distracted, beguiled, or bamboozled. In one episode, when Breitwieser and Kleinklaus decide to take a brief break from stealing, they join a museum tour, which they would ordinarily never do, since it means that at least one staff member could identify them. Midway through, Breitwieser has a revelation: “Something that a thief would obviously never do is precisely what a thief should consider doing.” He pulls off a theft mid-tour, then does it again and again during other tours in other places. Generalizing from the same principle, he and Kleinklaus start exchanging pleasantries with guards, asking them directions, and waving goodbye when they leave with millions of dollars’ worth of art tucked into their bags and clothing. Even more brashly, Breitwieser likewise plays against type when dealing with law enforcement. After one theft, when he discovers that someone has keyed his car, he himself phones the police, who inspect the vehicle while stolen art sits in its trunk. On another occasion, he leaves a museum to find a cop in the process of issuing him a parking ticket—cheap as ever, he hadn’t fed the meter—and protests vociferously while carrying six square feet of plundered altarpiece panels in his jacket.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about Breitwieser’s methods, however, is not their simplicity or their brazenness but their efficacy. “In the three hundred years that public museums have existed,” Finkel tells us, “very few individuals or gangs have pulled off a dozen or more heists.” Breitwieser pulls one off every dozen days. He has been known to steal twice in a single weekend, and to steal from three different museums in the same day. When a French art detective finally notices a pattern and compiles a list of fourteen separate incidents he thinks could be related, he concludes that, if a lone outfit is responsible for even half of them, it is “astoundingly active.” A Swiss inspector who also picks up the trail suspects that a single thief might have stolen between ten and twenty paintings from European museums. At the time, sixty-nine such paintings are adorning Breitwieser’s attic walls.

This ultra-lucrative, odds-defying crime streak is wonderfully narrated by Finkel, in a tale whose trajectory is less rise and fall than crazy and crazier. Only briefly does his book lag, in its discussions of the alleged science of our attraction to art, which, in addition to partaking uncritically of the mania for explaining all of human experience by waving in the general direction of evolution and MRIs, is top to bottom wrong. Darwin’s theory of natural selection does not state that our species survives “only by eliminating inefficiency and waste,” art does not exist “because we’ve won the evolutionary war,” and beauty is not “in the medial orbital-frontal cortex of the beholder.” Even when the science is plausible, it flattens rather than sharpens Finkel’s tale. Maybe there really are neurochemical imbalances “capable of creating an unstoppable and sometimes criminal collector.” But more likely, such an imbalance is one of many factors implicated in obsessive collecting, or cannot be clearly established as a cause rather than as a corollary or an effect of underlying issues; in any case, it is hardly a satisfying explanation for a figure as fascinating as Breitwieser. Of the who, what, when, where, and why of crime, it is always the last question that is hardest to answer; better to acknowledge the depth of the mystery than wave it away with flimsy science.

But that is just a quibble. Over all, “The Art Thief,” like its title character, has confidence, élan, and a great sense of timing. It is propelled by suspense and surprises, and it is neither ashamed of nor stingy with the fundamental emotional payoffs of the heist—the disbelieving No way!, the unabashed glee at the deft accomplishment of the seemingly impossible and definitely illegal. Nor does it hesitate, when the time comes, to bring down the boom. In the final chapters of Finkel’s book, his dashing young antihero turns old and sad. His relationship with Kleinklaus falls apart (even as she and Breitwieser’s mother emerge as perhaps the most fascinating characters in the book, and arguably the most morally compromised). The claim that he takes scrupulous care of his art falls apart. The claim that he never sells anything he steals falls apart. The claim that he is not just a glorified shoplifter falls apart. In short, his whole life falls apart, and the book takes a hard, appropriate turn toward disgust and sorrow. Finkel, who has been to his own rock bottom, is both clear-eyed and compassionate about the downfall, but something more than sympathy lingers in his tone. It is a kind of wistful admiration—a yearning, even at the bitter end, to believe that an art thief is more than just another thief, a heist more than just another crime.

The epigraph to “The Art Thief” is a maxim of Oscar Wilde’s: “Aesthetics are higher than ethics.” That was an incendiary idea in its time (and for that matter remains a provocation in today’s morally anxious literary culture), but what Wilde meant by it is a far cry from what Finkel implies by using it in his book. Wilde believed that, contrary to the claims of sentimentalism and of generations of prudish literary critics, the quality of a work of art does not depend on its ethical purity—that art depicting the degraded, the depraved, or the wicked can still be beautiful. Finkel, by contrast, suggests that aesthetics are higher than ethics not when it comes to assessing artistic merit but in the world at large: that beauty trumps morality no matter the context.

This is an idea he has propounded before. “I hope readers know that this was an attempt to reach higher—to make something beautiful, frankly,” he told a reporter at New York a week or so after his career came crashing down. The only problem with his Times article, he argued, was “the journalistic techniques employed”: “Look, I wrote a 6,000-word story without a single quote, without a blink in the shift of tone and pace. It was an ambitious attempt. I slipped. It deserved a correction. But there is a great deal of accuracy. Not once has the prose been called into question.” Of course, claiming that there is a great deal of accuracy in a story that also contains a great deal of fabrication is akin to pointing out that some of the house you have set on fire is still standing. But everything else about this defense is repellent, too: the notion that a story about exploited African children could “reach higher” by treating them as interchangeable; the insinuation that, in the face of such allegedly bravura writing, only a philistine would care about facts.

In “True Story,” published three years later, Finkel offered a far more thoroughgoing mea culpa, but I have seldom read a book that made me so queasy. From early on, it is evident that Finkel and Longo are engaged in an act of mutual exploitation: the murderer needs an audience to test out different strategies for winning over a jury, while the journalist needs a story that will help restore his devastated career. To get that story, Finkel is by turns manipulative, obsequious, and appallingly cozy, sharing with Longo the details of his love life, putting him on the phone with his girlfriend, and making him the first person to know of his plan to propose to her. Meanwhile, he interrogates his own dishonesty, maintaining that he never committed any other professional indiscretions but admitting that he lied profligately in his personal life—to cover up his serial infidelity, to gain sympathy, to burnish his reputation, or just for the heck of it. He pretended to be Canadian; he claimed he could speak French; most troubling, he curried intimacy with a woman by telling her that he had a brother who had died in infancy. If Finkel emerges from all this soul-baring and murderer-befriending more chastened than before, he also emerges as difficult to like and even harder to admire.

In a way, Finkel’s subsequent career makes sense; again and again, he is drawn to stories of men and their transgressions. Still, in some respects, “The Stranger in the Woods” was a surprising next act. It is a nuanced and compassionate book, and Finkel is thoughtful on the moral dilemmas raised by the North Pond hermit, as Christopher Knight was routinely called—above all, on how a just society should respond to the nonviolent crimes of a man so clearly unfit to live within its limits. The questions at the heart of that book prefigure those animating “The Art Thief”: To whom do the rules apply? And: How much should we forgive someone for their crimes because their life is exceptional?

Finkel’s interest in such questions is self-evident, and “The Art Thief” has the feel of a book whose author has finally found his ideal subject. In the genre of the heist, where elegance really does trump ethics, we are called upon to admire people we should not, and Finkel is gifted at making us do so—presumably because, to him, that kind of admiration comes naturally. The clearest tell comes at the end of “The Art Thief,” in the “Note on the Reporting” that details his research and sourcing. That note, which simultaneously serves to acknowledge his past misdeeds and to attempt to quiet any ongoing concerns, includes a story that does not appear elsewhere in the text. He and his subject are driving to the scene of one of Breitwieser’s crimes, at the home of the painter Peter Paul Rubens, now a museum, and on the way they stop at a busy rest area. In lieu of paying seventy cents to use the bathroom, Breitwieser ducks under the turnstile so swiftly and gracefully that no one but Finkel notices. Then he turns to the author and gestures at him to follow suit.

Finkel declines. Unsure of his agility, he is embarrassed by the thought of getting caught, both in the middle of the turnstile and in the middle of committing such a silly offense. But those are practical objections, not moral ones. Invited to act without considering the consequences, to flout the rules in plain sight, to join the fellowship of first-class miscreants, Finkel responds in a way as revealing as anything in his many mea culpas: “I wanted to.” ♦