A Utah author profiles ‘the most prolific art thief of all time’ in a new book

Michael Finkel, who lives in Park City, talks about his 11 years working on ‘The Art Thief.’

(Alfred A. Knopf) Author Michael Finkel, who lives in Park City, and the cover of his latest book, "The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession." The book was released June 27, 2023.

On March 14, 2018, author and journalist Michael Finkel had the last interview with the subject of his newest book, “The Art Thief.”

Finkel, who lives in Park City, met Stéphane Breitwieser at The Rubens House in Antwerp, Belgium, during the noon hour — because, Breitwieser had told the author, lunch was the best time to steal art.

As Finkel details in his book (which is published by Alfred A. Knopf, and went on sale June 27), Breitwieser was a notorious French art thief, responsible for 201 thefts, taking 300 separate pieces of art from more than 20 different museums.

Meeting Breitwieser at a museum made Finkel nervous, he said. “I’m entering a museum with the greatest art thief in history, and I’m having all these sort of journalistic crises, like, ‘What am I going to do if he steals something?,’” Finkel said.

Breitwieser was looking for one particular piece — “Adam and Eve,” an ivory sculpture made by Georg Petel in 1627. They found it in a room with walls painted yellow, on a curved counter with other pieces above and next to it. The sculpture sat in a protective Plexiglas box.

Finkel said he watched as Breitwieser bent down to look at the work. It was like seeing an old friend, Finkel said.

In February 1997, 21 years earlier, Breitwieser stole the sculpture from The Rubens House. It was one of many artworks — worth an estimated $2 billion — that Breitwieser stole and displayed in a bedroom of his mother’s house in a French suburb, which he shared with his girlfriend and sometimes accomplice, Anne-Catherine Kleinklau.

Finkel snapped a photo of the reunion. The timestamp read 12:35 p.m.

“He suddenly ran out of the gallery and into this courtyard in the middle, where it was quiet,” Finkel said. “Of course, I followed him out there, and there was, like, tears sliding down his cheek.”

Finkel said he asked Breitwieser what was wrong, and the Frenchman replied: “That used to be mine. I used to have it on my nightstand. I used to be able to touch and feel it.”

Finkel said he found Breitwieser’s next words heartbreaking.

“The day I stole that piece, the ‘Adam and Eve,’ was the highlight of my entire life,” Breitwieser told Finkel. “Everything has gone downhill since then.”

The moment also was overwhelming for Finkel, he said. “This is a thief, and this is someone whose actions I disapprove of, but I think in that moment, I really couldn’t help feeling sort of sorry for [him],” Finkel said. “I felt sympathy, in a weird way, for an art thief. He obviously can’t steal this piece of art again, but I could tell that he truly missed it in a way that I think we all want to heal.”

(Michael Finkel | Alfred A. Knopf) Stéphane Breitwieser examines Georg Petel's 1627 ivory sculpture "Adam and Eve," in The Rubens House in Antwerp, Belgium, on March 14, 2018. Breitwieser — who stole the sculpture in 1997, and kept it on his nightstand for years — is the subject of "The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession," a book by Park City-based author Michael Finkel, published June 27, 2023.

An 11-year odyssey

Finkel learned about Breitwieser — whom he calls “the most prolific art thief of all time” — from French media. Finkel wrote a letter to Breitwieser, who answered back.

They corresponded for four years, Finkel said, before Breitwieser agreed to a lunch meeting, the first time the thief had spoken to an American journalist. Breitwieser did have a condition for the lunch: Finkel could not bring a pen or notebook.

Over time, Finkel gained the Frenchman’s trust, and conducted more than 40 hours of interviews with him. The process, from first contact to finished book, took 11 years, Finkel said.

“He took me to museums and demonstrated how he stole, step-by-step,” Finkel said. They went through all of Breitwieser’s thefts, Finkel said, and how he got away with them.

Importantly, and the reason Finkel said the story captured his interest, was Breitwieser’s motive. “He, unlike almost all real art thieves, stole for love,” Finkel said.

“[This] is someone who had, all his life — even since he was a little kid, said his parents — a crazy emotional attachment to works of art that thrills him,” Finkel said.

Breitwieser stole from all over, Finkel said: Museums in big cities and small towns, churches, galleries, auction houses and art shows. There were so many crimes, Finkel said, that to help readers get their heads around them, he opens the book with a series of maps detailing the locations of the thefts.

Breitwieser had an affinity for 17th-century oil paintings from the late Renaissance era in northern Europe, Finkel said. He also loved ivory sculptures. (Finkel’s website includes a gallery of some of the works he stole.)

But Breitwieser ignored 99% of the art he could have taken, Finkel said, opting to steal only what spoke to him.

“The only thing the pieces have in common with the most important thing he told me, which is that he felt love for them,” Finkel said. “[Breitwieser] said he could have stolen Picassos by the dozen, but that didn’t interest him. He said to me, ‘If you really need to make money, there’s easier ways to make money than stealing art.’”

It was fascinating, Finkel said, to learn how Breitwieser’s logical mind could also be so twisted — like the Frenchman’s romantic notions of what it meant to see and experience art properly.

“He wanted to sit on a couch — or, even better, be curled up in bed with his girlfriend — have a cup of coffee … and run [his] fingers over the ridges in the paint and feel the brushstrokes,” Finkel said. “He thought that by ‘liberating,’ as he called it, these works from museums, they could be enjoyed the way they were meant to be enjoyed.”

Breitwieser told Finkel that if he had been a billionaire, he would have just bought the artwork.

Finkel said Breitwieser differentiated what he did from, for example, the people who pulled off the infamous 1990 Isabella Stewart Garner Museum heist, where thieves cut two Rembrandt paintings from their frames. Breitwieser, Finkel said, would never do that.

“He would remove a painting from the wall very carefully, using a Swiss army knife, then the tabs or nails on the back. Then he’d carefully remove the frame, cover it up, carry it out, put it in his car, lay a sheet over it, bring it back to his apartment and have it reframed.”

In fact, Breitwieser told Finkel he disliked being called an “art thief.” He preferred to be called “a collector with an unorthodox acquisition style,” Finkel said.

Falling like Icarus

Finkel, in his interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, was elusive about how Breitwieser was eventually caught — it’s in the book, after all — but noted that “like any good Icarus story, the higher you fly, the harder you crash.”

Breitwieser, Finkel said, “was being chased by three different police agencies — two in France and one in Switzerland. It wasn’t until he made a pretty big mistake, that his wings melted and he crashed to Earth,” Finkel said. (In 2005, a French court sentenced Breitwieser to 26 months in prison.)

After 11 years of reporting and writing “The Art Thief,” Finkel said it’s hard to pick one moment in his encounters with Breitwieser that will stick with him.

There was, however, the time in a tiny European hotel when Finkel asked Breitwieser how he was able to steal works when museum patrons and security were in the room. Finkel said he was taking notes during this interview, glancing down at his notebook every few seconds. At one point, he said, Breitwieser asked if the journalist had seen what he had done.

Breitwieser stood up, Finkel said, turned around and lifted his shirt. Tucked underneath was Finkel’s laptop.

“It was that moment, in my hotel room, when he made the computer disappear like a David Blaine act,” Finkel said. “There was nothing he could have said that would have demonstrated to me how great of a thief was [more than] that moment of action.”

“The Art Thief” is Finkel’s fourth book. His last one — “The Stranger in the Woods” (2018), about a hermit in the Maine woods — was a New York Times bestseller. His 2005 book “True Story,” about his encounters with an accused killer who had used Finkel’s name while on the run, was made into a movie that premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, with Jonah Hill playing Finkel and James Franco portraying the killer, Christian Longo.

Now that “The Art Thief” is on bookstore shelves, Finkel said that it’s been the most fun, frustrating, interesting and unexpected story he has ever come across. He also said he has learned a lot from Breitwieser, even if he didn’t always agree with the Frenchman’s actions.

“He really showed me a way of looking at art that affected me, and it has changed it,” Finkel said. “I hope that readers who come to the book not only have a good time reading about this crazy man’s actions, but also [that] it changes the way that they interact with art.”