The Gentleman Thief

In the end, the "gentleman thief" broke down like a boy. Stephane Breitwieser, 33, who carried out some of the brashest art thefts the world has ever seen, sat sobbing in a French courtroom earlier this month. The scene would seem to be the closing chapter in the bizarre tale of a narcissistic loner driven to theft by an obsessive passion for art--and of a mother who destroyed much of the treasure, worth $30 million to $40 million, according to the London-based Art Loss Register. Breitwieser was convicted Jan. 7 of stealing more than 200 works of art from museums around Europe; his mother was convicted of receiving them. Their disappearance, declared the French indictment, is a "colossal loss to the heritage of humanity." But questions are now being raised about just how much of Breitwieser's haul is really gone for good.

The young Frenchman's phenomenal stealing spree spanned seven years and seven countries. He pilfered from small, underfunded and understaffed museums from France to Austria and Denmark. His eclectic take included paintings, vases, sculptures and musical instruments, although he was mostly drawn to old masters, particularly the Dutch. Among the valuable works never recovered was a 17th-century painting called "Cheating Benefits Its Master" by Flemish master Pieter Bruegel. French critic Vincent Noce goes so far as to call the crimes "the biggest pillage of art since the Nazis," though obviously not on the same industrial scale. But according to French and Swiss courts, Breitwieser never sold a single one of the 239 works. Instead, he supposedly hoarded them in his bedroom in his mother's house on the edge of a village in Alsace.

Breitwieser's exploits stunned the European art world. But it was his mother who made the cognoscenti cringe. In the three weeks between her son's arrest in Switzerland in 2001 and the search of her home by French authorities, Mireille Stengel, now 53, hacked to pieces what she could of her son's collection and threw the detritus into the Rhine-Rhone Canal. Sixty works could not be dredged out of the water by police and are thought to be lost.

How did Breitwieser get away with it for so long? "His modus operandi was very simple: he goes in, he takes, he leaves," says Noce, who investigated the case for three years and will publish a book about it in March. Breitwieser operated during museum visiting hours. He normally tucked smaller pieces under his coat or into a knapsack, but sometimes his esthetic cravings got the best of him. At the Swiss Chateau de Gruyeres, a tapestry too big to hide caught his eye. So he carefully pulled it from the wall and threw it out a window, retrieving it later from a ditch below. Breitwieser finally painted himself into a corner, as it were, in Lucerne. His bravado had drawn him back to a museum he'd pilfered from only two days earlier. This time he was recognized and arrested.

His Swiss interrogator, an officer named Alexander von der Muhll, was an art lover, too. "It was the first time that Breitwieser could talk to someone about his collection," says Jean-Christophe Sauterelle, spokesman for the Swiss cantonal police of Vaud. "It was a relief for him." Day after day, Breitwieser confessed in minute detail to his 239 thefts, remembering every date, location and piece. Charmed by the sheer weirdness of the story, the press dubbed Breitwieser the "gentleman thief," but the reality was darker. Breitwieser's lawyer, Thierry Moser, remembers thinking, "This boy is psychologically disturbed," tormented by an obsessive relationship with his divorced mother and possibly believing he deserved the pieces more than museums or the public did.

But did Breitwieser really hang on to them all? At the time of his arrest, he had 30,000 euros in his bank account, a sizable sum for a garcon de cafe . Suspiciously, the list of those that vanished includes many of the most precious. Claiming all of them wound up at the bottom of the canal so that they won't be looked for anymore, Noce notes that Mireille Stengel was an educated woman, the head nurse at a nearby hospital, and no philistine. She would have known the value of the works she claims to have destroyed. "The French investigation was botched," says Noce. Both Breitwieser and his mother were given relatively lenient three-year sentences. But with this case closed, key questions about their crimes remain as murky as the Rhine-Rhone Canal.