Stéphane Breitwieser: The Prolific European Art Thief

August 23, 2023

Your read: 

  • Stéphane Breitwieser enjoyed wearing disguises, walking into a gallery and nonchalantly taking the art right from the wall
  • He was caught the same year as one of his most daring heists (2001) 
  • He hid art in his mothers attic (the real MVP)
  • The best date spots for a crime
  • You can do anything you put your mind to, just look at Breitwieser (This deal includes prison time)

You and I both love a little intrigue. In the world of criminal masterminds, Stéphane Breitwieser stands out as a unique and audacious figure. His name became synonymous with art theft as he orchestrated a series of daring heists all across Europe that left the authorities baffled. 

Breitwieser, Stéphane

Breitwieser’s cunning methods and extravagant exploits have solidified his place in history as one of the most infamous con artists and art thieves in history. 

The Early Years

Born on June 14, 1971, in Mulhouse, France, Stéphane Breitwieser displayed an early fascination with art. Growing up, he was surrounded by the beauty of paintings, sculptures, and artifacts, thanks to his parents’ involvement in the antique business. However… This childhood exposure to art laid the foundation for his later criminal exploits. 

The Heists Begin

Breitwisers criminal career began in 1995 when he stole a lithograph (Art print using stone, oil and water) from a Swiss museum. As his confidence grew, he embarked on a spree that saw him stealing over 239 pieces of art from museums and galleries across Europe! His artistic tastes were often centered around intricate paintings, exquisite sculptures and the occasional historical artifact. 

His movie-esque methods of theft were what set Breitwieser apart from other art thieves. Often disguising himself as a wealthy collector or curator, he would enter museums during opening hours and nonchalantly remove the artwork from the walls. The focus of his thefts would only be of pieces that moved him emotionally, pieces that he felt would be well worth the risk.

Breitwieser’s knowledge of art and history allowed him to blend in seamlessly, convincing museum staff that he had a legitimate reason to handle the artworks. 

If you thought that his thefts were done alone, you would be wrong indeed. His swift execution and ability to remain calm under pressure added to his mystique, yes, but he also made sure to make time for his girlfriend Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus and include her in many heists. This includes the theft of ‘The ivory sculpture’ by Georg Petel, reflecting Adam and Eve in the Garden, a serpent and an uneaten apple. 

How romantic. Honestly, if he doesn’t make you the Bonnie to his Clyde, why even bother?

Petel, Georg. ‘The Ivory Sculpture’

The Great Heist of the Habsburg Collection

One of Breitwieser’s most daring heists took place in 2001 at the Habsburg Collection in Switzerland. Armed with a pair of wire cutters, he managed to cut an original Rembrandt painting, “Child with a Soap Bubble,” from its frame in a matter of minutes. The stunt shocked the art world, leading to an international manhunt to track down the thief. 

Rembrandt, ‘Child with a Soap Bubble’’

The downfall of Breitwieser’s reign of deception eventually came crashing down that same year. While attempting to steal a bugle from a museum in Lucerne, Switzerland, he was apprehended by the authorities. The stolen bugle was found in his car, and subsequent investigations led to the discovery of his extensive art collection. In a shocking revelation, authorities uncovered Breitwieser’s stash of stolen art worth millions of dollars, which he had stored in his mother’s attic. 

Legal Proceedings and Aftermath 

In 2003, Breitwieser was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison for his daring thefts. After a successful appeal by prosecutors, he ended up receiving an increased sentence of six years. During his time in prison, Breitwieser’s story captured the attention of the media and the public, who were fascinated by his daring audacity.

Breitwieser’s actions caused irreparable damage to the art world but also shed light on the vulnerabilities of security systems within museums and galleries. His ability to steal priceless art right under the watchful eye of security, staff and onlookers remind us that even the most secure institutions can fall victim to crafty individuals. Let’s hope he at least gets a movie deal… he worked hard for it.

Husna x