GQ gives us the story of prolific master art thief Stephane Breitwieser, a man whose career in crime has netted him more than a billion in art, sculture, and paintings from around the world, and like most master thieves, he does it for the challenge, and for the love of the art he "collects".
All his life, inanimate objects have had the power to seduce him. “I get smitten,” Breitwieser says. Before artwork, it was stamps and coins and old postcards, which he'd purchased with pocket money. Later it was medieval pottery fragments he'd find near archaeological sites, free for the taking.
When he covets an object, says Breitwieser, he feels the emotional wallop of a coup de coeur—literally, a blow to the heart. There are just things that make him swoon. “Looking at something beautiful,” he explains, “I can't help but weep. There are people who do not understand this, but I can cry for objects.”
His interactions with the world of the living were far less fulfilling. He never really understood his peers, or almost anyone else for that matter. Popular pastimes, like sports and video games, baffled him. He's never had any interest in drinking or drugs. He could happily spend all day alone at a museum—his parents often dropped him off—or touring archaeological sites, of which there are dozens in the area where he grew up, but around others he was sometimes hotheaded and temperamental.
Breitwieser was born in 1971 in the Alsace region of northeastern France, where his family has deep roots. He speaks French and German and a little English. His father was a sales executive in Switzerland, just over the border, and his mother was a nurse. He's an only child. The family, for most of his youth, was well-off, living in a grand house filled with elegant furniture—Louis XV armchairs, from the 1700s; Empire dressers, from the 1800s. His parents had hoped he'd become a lawyer, but he dropped out of university after a couple of years.
His first museum heist came shortly after a family crisis. When he was 22 years old, still living at home, his parents' marriage ended explosively. His father left and took his possessions with him, and Breitwieser and his mother tumbled down the social ladder, re-settling in a smaller place, the antiques replaced by Ikea.
Cushioning the trauma was a woman Breitwieser met through an acquaintance, a fellow archeology buff. Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus was the same age as Breitwieser, and similarly introverted, with a kindred sense of curiosity and adventure. She had a sly smile and an irresistible pixie cut. They shared a passion for museums, thrilled to be immersed in beauty. Breitwieser finally experienced a coup de coeur for an actual person. “I loved her right away,” he says. Soon after Breitwieser's father departed, Kleinklaus moved in.
A few months later, the couple were visiting a museum in the French village of Thann when Breitwieser spotted an antique pistol. His first thought, he recalls, was that he should already own something like this. Breitwieser's father had collected old weapons but had taken them when he'd left the family, not bothering to leave a single piece for his son. The firearm, exhibited in a glass case on the museum's second floor, was hand-carved around 1730. It was far nicer than anything his father had owned.
He felt an urge to possess it. The museum was small, no security guard or alarm system, just a volunteer at the entrance booth. The display case itself, Breitwieser noted, was partially open. He was wearing a backpack and could easily hide the pistol in there.
One must resist temptation, he knew. It even says so in the Bible, not that he was particularly religious. What our heart really wants, we must often deny. Maybe this is why so many people seem conflicted and miserable—we are taught to be at constant war with ourselves. As if that were a virtue.
What would happen, he wondered, if he did not resist temptation? If, instead, he fed temptation and freed himself from society's repressive restraints? He had no desire to physically harm anyone or so much as cause fright. He contemplated the flintlock pistol and whispered a few of these thoughts to his girlfriend.
Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus has never spoken to the media about her relationship with Breitwieser and any possible role in the crimes, and neither has Breitwieser's mother, Mireille Stengel. Though there exist supporting documents and reported accounts, much of this story is based primarily on interviews with Breitwieser. While he was in the museum, in front of the pistol, Kleinklaus's response, the way Breitwieser remembers it, made him believe that they were destined to be together.
“Go ahead,” she said. “Take it.” So he did.
The Ocean's Twelve character of Francois Toulour is based on Breitwieser's history, of course. But like all great thieves, he eventually gets caught, because he cannot stay away from the game. It's still a hell of a story though.