Review: The astonishing crime career of the £1 billion art junkie

Review: The astonishing crime career of the £1 billion art junkie

Graham Ogilvy reviews a “true story of love, crime and a dangerous obsession”.

Stendhal syndrome is unlikely to feature in a plea of mitigation in a sheriff court near you – and citing it did nothing to secure the liberty of Stéphane Breitwieser, the working-class Frenchman who systematically plundered the regional museums of France, Switzerland and Holland, making off with an estimated £1 billion worth of Renaissance masterpieces.

It was worth a try, though, because Breitwieser was not a normal art thief, stealing masterpieces to sell to re-setters for a fraction of the value, or to use as collateral in underworld transactions. Nor did he engage in the more profitable and under-reported extortion of insurance companies and owners. Instead, he stole for the thrill, but also to admire his ‘collection’ in his attic flat – a bit of a saddo, like those predominantly male ‘collectors’ who rob bird’s nests for rare eggs.

He may well, however, have had a wee touch of yon Stendhal syndrome, the condition first identified by Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini and named after the French novelist who was overcome when viewing works of art. How else do you explain a campaign of larceny that successfully targetted 172 museums and netted 239 works of art? In tabloid parlance, he was an art junkie.

Breitwieser, 52 years of age and living quietly in France now, would presumably have been unsurprised at the recent revelations concerning thefts from numerous British museums and galleries. He was able to effect his thefts with nothing more hi-tech than a Swiss army knife coupled with native cunning.

And he had quite good taste. Among the paintings, ivories, carvings and treasures that he stole were works by Cranach, Teniers, Brueghel and Durer.

Happily, most of the works were recovered, although Breitwieser’s mother did destroy an estimated 80 masterpieces when he was arrested in Switzerland.

Even after having been caught, Breitwieser continued to steal from museums and galleries. An ‘art addict’, or simply a KT (known thief) as the cops of old would have it?

Although marred with a few sloppy inaccuracies, this book tells the compelling tale of how this selfish, self-obsessed man was able to ransack Europe’s museums along with his girlfriend in a rampage reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde’s campaign of criminality.

The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession by Michael Finkel. Published by Simon & Schuster, 240 pp.

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