The Art Thief

  • By Michael Finkel
  • Knopf
  • 240 pp.

What happens when an aesthete turns fanatic?

The Art Thief

A classic heist film — say, John Huston’s “Asphalt Jungle” (1950) — typically unfolds in three acts: disparate criminals form a team; they plan and execute a theft; and they get away, are apprehended, or are killed. Modern variants, such as Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” (1992), dislocate and deconstruct that narrative pattern, in Tarantino’s case by eliding the heist altogether.

The pattern and its variants also hold for literary heist narratives. Specifics vary, but two fundamentals remain constant. Members of the team might be brutish or refined, impulsive or calculating; spoils might be currency, gold, jewels, artwork, antiquities, or documents; and the consequences might be smooth successes or bloody failures for all or some of the thieves. Whatever the variables, however, the generic narrative features 1) a team of criminals that pulls off 2) a single heist.

The serial-theft narrative, by contrast, features 1) a single thief, though often with an accomplice, who executes 2) multiple robberies. While the heist narrative explores the dynamic of dysfunctional individuals forming a functional team and elaborates the technicalities of the team’s single effort, the serial-theft narrative probes the psyche of its protagonist while reciting his repetitive, essentially ritual, acts. Either narrative might include the counternarrative of a police procedural.

An epitome of the serial-theft narrative, Michael Finkel’s arresting new character study, The Art Thief, plumbs the manic mind of contemporary French art thief Stéphane Breitwieser, records the scores of thefts executed by Breitwieser and Anne-Catherine Kleinhaus — his muse, girlfriend, and accomplice — between 1994 and 1999, and tallies over 250 Renaissance paintings and precious objets d’art stolen by the couple.

Though The Art Thief chronicles thefts and catalogues spoils, it primarily builds a detailed portrait of Breitwieser — an obsessional, delusional aesthete — while scrutinizing Breitwieser’s and Anne-Catherine’s (as Finkel refers to them) torturous love affair, peculiar dependence on Breitwieser’s mother, whose house they share, and engagements with the police, journalists, and psychologists who people the second half of the book.

Born in 1971 to an affluent family, Breitwieser, whose parents divorced when he was a boy, had to leave his large, art-filled home to move with his mother first to an apartment and then to the small suburban house that plays a major role in Finkel’s narrative. A petty shoplifter in his teens, he soon would graduate to amassing an art “collection” valued at over $1 billion. Few thieves have “have pulled off a dozen or more heists,” Finkel notes, yet Breitwieser “averaged a theft every twelve days for seven years.”

Breitwieser and Anne-Catherine met when both were 20, beginning a 15-year “saga.” Intensely in love and “perpetually broke,” they survived on Anne-Catherine’s small salary, Breitwieser’s unemployment benefits, cash gifts from his grandparents, and free rent from his mother. She lived on the first floor; the couple shared a “low ceilinged and cramped” two-room attic space. “Wedged into the bedroom is a majestic, four-poster canopied bed…where the young couple sleeps.”

The duo is prolific. In 1994, on their first heist, they steal an antique pistol; in 1995, on their third, they take their first painting. By early 1997, they “have stolen on three out of four weekends for close to two years.” They sell nothing, instead cramming every surface and wall of their attic with rare objects and valuable paintings. “They live inside a treasure chest,” Finkel writes, often lounging in bed trying to “identify the elements that attracted them to specific works” — pillow talk that alludes to the implicit eroticism of their robberies.

Hoarding, extremely rare among art thieves, focuses Finkel’s portrait. If “beauty is the…only true currency,” as Breitwieser believes, and art is the embodiment of beauty, then “stealing art for money…is disgraceful.” Stealing it for purposes of collecting, savoring, and sharing it in extreme privacy, however, is honorable, especially stealing from public museums, “prisons” for art that prevent its true appreciation. As Finkel observes, Breitwieser “takes only works that stir him emotionally.”

Breitwieser’s MO is highly tuned. Dressed stylishly, albeit in thrift-shop clothes, the couple favors regional and local museums with little if any security and few visitors. “Disgusted” by thieves who work in darkness, and especially by oafs who disfigure paintings while stealing them, Breitwieser steals only in daytime and only objects and “cabinet paintings” that can be removed cleanly and hidden in a backpack or under his clothes. With his one tool, a Swiss Army knife, he methodically dislodges the objects and paintings while Anne-Catherine stands guard.

Finkel credibly speculates that Breitwieser “does not enjoy his thefts,” that “his compulsion is collecting, not stealing,” and that “he’s amassing art, not adventures.” Yet Breitwieser chooses objects impulsively, enjoys the “hunt” and the “seduction” of theft (Finkel’s favored metaphors), and shares with Anne-Catherine a palpable erotic frisson when stealing. Though seemingly at odds, either or both readings of Breitwieser’s psyche may be true.

Whatever the case, the conflict between Breitwieser’s vigilance as a thief and purism as a collector marks the beginning of his end. He and Anne-Catherine had succeeded in heisting an “aesthetically dizzying” 16th-century silver German tankard, but Breitwieser, a purist who collects only “original and complete” objects, suppresses his instincts, violates his self-imposed rules, and ignores Anne-Catherine’s cautions: He reenters the museum to retrieve the tankard’s forgotten lid and is nabbed.

Despite his delusion that he was too cunning to be caught, in short, he was. His fall is long, acrid, and depressing. He and Anne-Catherine sour, quarrel, break up, quarrel again, and so on; she has an abortion (kept from Breitwieser) and, during their final breakup, has a child with another man. Breitwieser continues to steal, but he becomes sloppy. Over the next many years, he is arrested, imprisoned, arrested again, and so on. While Finkel’s book was in press, in April 2023, he was facing yet another trial.

The final mystery to this story concerns the 200-plus objects and 69 paintings that disappeared from the attic retreat. Finkel writes that art-crime detectives “prioritize recovering items over making arrests,” but that “overall…less than 10 percent of pieces are retrieved.” In this case, detectives found most of Breitwieser’s heisted booty at the bottom of a canal, but no one has found the paintings. (Revealing here that Breitwieser’s mother had a hand in the affair spoils nothing.)

Finkel has crafted The Art Thief with finesse and élan. He tells his tale of obsessive desires and ornate objects in measured and unadorned prose; employs a supple structure that separates the multiple threads of the tale while also exploring their weave; and advances the linear plot with narrative strategies that not only anticipate its foregone conclusion without giving it away, but also incorporate into the unfolding events his retrospective analyses of them.

The author, moreover, manages point of view with deftness and purpose. “The two of us,” Breitwieser says of Anne-Catherine and himself, “exist in a closed universe.” Finkel transports us to that universe and closes us in it, just as he locks us into Breitwieser’s skewed view of the art world and of his own criminal mission. The Art Thief, put differently, morphs from an entertaining caper story into a claustrophobic study in pathology, shifts in tone from spirited to creepy, and becomes, as a result, an absorbing but disquieting read.

[Editor’s note: This review originally ran in 2023.]

Charles Caramello is a professor emeritus of English at the University of Maryland and John H. Daniels Fellow at the National Sporting Library and Museum in Middleburg, VA.

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