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The Art Thief by Michael Finkel
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The Art Thief

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The Art Thief by Michael Finkel
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Jun 25, 2024 | ISBN 9781984898456

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A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR: The Washington Post, The New Yorker, Lit Hub

The Art Thief, like its title character, has confidence, élan, and a great sense of timing. It is propelled by suspense and surprises….This ultra-lucrative, odds-defying crime streak is wonderfully narrated by Finkel, in a tale whose trajectory is less rise and fall than crazy and crazier….Part of what makes Finkel’s book so much fun is that, without exception, [Breitwieser’s] strategies are insane.”
—Kathryn Schulz, The New Yorker

“A mesmerizing true-crime psychological thriller….The Art Thief develops the tension of a French policier, where the crook (for whom you alternately feel sympathy and disgust) has Maigret or Poirot hot on his trail. The final outcome is a shock. Mr. Finkel tells an enthralling story. From start to finish, this book is hard to put down.”
—Moira Hodgson, The Wall Street Journal

“Enthralling…In animated and colorful prose, Finkel summons the emotional intensity of a murder mystery. But old masters, not bodies, are missing….The Art Thief is about heists, yes, but it also speaks to much more.”
—Brandon Tensley, The Washington Post

“Exhilarating…Finkel’s narrative thrills and electrifies, until it all barrels toward inevitable capture, two shocking betrayals, and an astonishing conclusion.”
Adrienne Westenfeld, Esquire

“Thrilling…Finkel deftly unspools the story of Breitwieser’s improbable years-long adventure.”
—Geoffrey Gagnon, GQ

“Meticulously detailed, [a] page-turning account….As much a crime caper as a psychological thriller, Finkel’s narrative interweaves gripping descriptions of Breitweiser’s in-plain-sight thefts armed with nothing more than stealth and a Swiss Army knife, a concise history of global art theft, and psychologists’ musings on Breitwieser’s unconscious motivations….Finkel deftly keeps us swaying between great sympathy for his central character and profound suspicion.”
Jenny McPhee, Air Mail

“It is romantic to liken art thieves to Pierce Brosnan’s glamorous character in The Thomas Crown Affair. The reality is far less charming. Case in point: Stéphane Breitwieser, one of the most successful art thieves of all time. From roughly 1994 to 2001, Breitwieser executed more than 200 heists. The book’s first lesson? Europe has a lot of understaffed historic buildings. The second? Even a kleptomaniac with delusions of grandeur can be made mildly sympathetic in the hands of a skilled writer.”
James Tarmy, Bloomberg

The Art Thief benefits from a built-in ticking clock as time runs out for Breitwieser and his girlfriend. Finkel controls the pace effortlessly, broadening and narrowing focus from the day-to-day of the thieves to the intricate plotting of their thefts and a history of art crime, as well as who steals and why. That combined with mounting dread for the artworks’ fate makes for a heart-pounding read.”
Maren Longbella, Star Tribune

“Finkel turns his extensive research and interviews into a suspenseful story that reads like a novel. He relates Breitwieser’s technique in vivid detail, and then shows us what happened to an estimated $2 billion worth of paintings, sculptures and other works. Finkel explores the relationships between Breitwieser and the women in his life, along with interesting bits of art history. A true-crime thriller that’s a work of art.”
—Suzanne Perez, KMUW Wichita

“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….[Finkel] manages point of view with deftness and purpose….The Art Thief…morphs from an entertaining caper story into a claustrophobic study in pathology…An absorbing but disquieting read.”
—Charles Caramello, Washington Independent Review of Books

“This is an absorbing and astonishing portrait of a fascinating and complicated character—a riveting story of obsession and misplaced brilliance.”
—Kirk Wallace Johnson, best-selling author of The Feather Thief and The Fishermen and the Dragon

“In this masterful true crime account, Finkel traces the fascinating exploits of Stéphane Breitwieser, a French art thief who stole more than 200 artworks…turning his mother’s attic into a glittering trove of oil paintings, silver vessels, and antique weaponry….Drawing on art theory and Breitwieser’s psychology reports, Finkel speculates on his subject’s addiction to beauty….It’s a riveting ride.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review

“The tale of a strong candidate for the title of ‘most prolific art thief ever….’ Finkel’s play-by-play of each theft has the pacing and atmosphere of a good suspense tale….The author describes each acquisition as well as Breitwieser’s simple but effective methods….Finkel’s extensive research, survey of art history, and hours of interviews with his subject combine for a compelling read.”

“A riveting ride….An engrossing true crime narrative….Obsessive crime, dangerous beauty, ill-fated love: The Art Thief is the stuff of noir fiction, made all the more compelling and audacious for its authenticity.”

“From the opening chapter, Finkel’s tight prose heightens the drama of each theft, as Breitweiser and his girlfriend Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus, who serves as his lookout, enter Belgium’s Rubens House amid visitors and guards….A fascinating read. Finkel will have art history and true crime lovers obsessively turning the pages of this suspenseful, smartly written work until its shocking conclusion.”
—Library Journal

“The Art Thief is both comprehensive and completely absorbing. It will have you wondering, as judges and juries did, if the defendant is a career criminal or simply an aesthete.”
Lorraine W. Shanley, BookReporter

Author Q&A

An Interview with Michael Finkel

What most captivated you about Stéphane Breitwieser’s story?
First, there’s the sheer number of thefts. Very few thieves in all of history are known to have stolen from as many as a dozen museums or art galleries. Stéphane Breitwieser, with the assistance of his girlfriend, Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus, stole more than 300 artworks from some 200 places. Breitwieser averaged one theft every 12 days for seven years, an inconceivable pace.
Intriguing too is how Breitwieser stole. His thefts all took place during opening hours, relying on stealth, intuition, and athleticism. He never brandished a weapon, or so much as threatened anyone in a museum with harm.
Even more interesting is why. Unlike nearly every other art thief, Breitwieser was not motivated by money. He did not try to sell the works he took. He stole, he insists, only for the love of art, for aesthetic desire.
There’s also the existence of the secret lair, where Breitwieser displayed all of his loot, worth an estimated $2 billion, and where he could admire the works to his heart’s content.
Finally, there is the mother-son-girlfriend relationship triangle, and then, topping it all off, the spectacular way that everything in Breitwieser’s life came crashing down. This story, incredible yet true, is to me pure journalistic catnip.
How were you able to gain Breitwieser’s trust?
In a word, slowly. Learning Breitwieser’s story required more than a decade of effort. I first requested an interview with him in 2012, via a personal letter. We exchanged occasional notes for four years before he agreed to meet me for lunch – and even then, just for an introductory chat, without my notebook or recorder.
Breitwieser eventually agreed to a series of formal interviews, the first he had ever granted to an American. We spoke to each other in French. We also embarked on a couple of full-day road trips, visiting museums from which he had previously stolen. By the time I attended his most recent trial, in early 2023, nearly 11 years had elapsed since I’d mailed him my first letter.
What is it like to visit a museum with Breitwieser?
It’s like a piece of performance art unto itself. Breitwieser, short and lithe, seems to blend into a room, to conform to its contours. He often stole while people, even guards, were nearby. Only his eyes, big and piercing and sapphire blue, are revealingly readable.
When I accompanied Breitwieser to a museum, he’d walk swiftly and laconically past by works that didn’t strike his fancy. But when he came across a piece that ignited his aesthetic senses, his eyes would spring wide open with unrestrained wonder. His forehead wrinkled. He stood extremely close to the work, radiating a twitchy, electrified energy.
I asked, as he examined a Renaissance painting with a religious theme, what he was thinking. He spilled forth with a description of the effects of the painting’s colors, and of the pleasing way in which the brush strokes flowed. He quickly scanned the room for the presence of guards and cameras and other tourists, then grasped my hand and guided my fingertips lightly over the surface of the work so that I could feel the rippled texture of the paint. He spoke of the enormous emotion contained in the painting. He shed a few tears.
Then, finished with describing the front of the work, he continued with an analysis of how the painting was attached to the wall, and what would be the best method of taking it down. He mentioned where in the gallery he might stash the frame and pantomimed how he’d hide the painting against his back, beneath his coat. He demonstrated the pace he’d use while walking out of the museum. He described how he’d drive off – cautiously, as he eased his way out of the city, and then, once he hit the major roads, as fast as his car would go.
What was the relationship like between the two of you? Does a writer have to admire his subject in order to write about him?
I was never quite sure how I felt about Breitwieser, a sentiment that persists to this day. Sometimes, I’m amazed by his crime spree and passion for art. Other times I feel disgusted by the selfishness of his actions – depriving everyone else of the opportunity to enjoy the works of art he stole, and rewarding only himself. At times, Breitwieser and I seemed to chat like old buddies; at other moments, our interviews became antagonistic and hostile.
It’s certainly not necessary for a writer to admire the person he or she is writing about – a healthy ambivalence, I feel, allows for a more nuanced account. This permits the readers themselves to determine how they feel about a person as eccentric and troubled as Breitwieser.
Breitwieser seemed to feel similarly uncertain about me – sometimes amiable, sometimes combative – and this oscillating mood was reflected in our use of language. During the course of our time together, we switched back and forth several times between the more formal French syntax, the one used in business settings, and the informal one used between friends. We never seemed to figure out which one we preferred.
How do you feel about Breitwieser’s belief that museums are just prisons for art? Does the fact he was motivated by aesthetics rather than money, and did not resort to violence, make his thefts in any way excusable?
I visit museums wherever I’m traveling, but I admit that they really aren’t the best way to see art. Museums are often exhausting, uncomfortable, overwhelming. It doesn’t take long before my feet start to ache. It’s virtually impossible to find a comfortable place in which to admire and commune with a work of art.
I won’t go so far as to say that museums are prisons for art, but Breiwieser does have a point. How much nicer would it be to see the Mona Lisa not in the midst of the Louvre’s rugby scrum but instead while sitting on a couch, beside a loved one, in your pajamas, sipping a good wine?
I’ll also admit that the way Breitwieser stole – nonviolently, with aesthetic intentions and impressive finesse – does make me look upon his crime spree with some degree of empathy for his intense desire to possess the pieces. When Breitwieser spoke to me about other art thieves, like those who robbed the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston by brutally slicing masterworks by Rembrandt and others out of their frames, I found myself nodding my head in agreement with him. Such crimes, he said, were the work of savages, not categorizable with his refined heists.
What was the most surprising discovery you made as you reported this tale?
Most shocking to me was the realization that many museums, especially the smaller, regional places from which Breitwieser most often stole, really aren’t well protected. The problem is that a museum’s mission isn’t to conceal valuables but to share, in a way that makes you feel as close to a piece as possible, unencumbered by security apparatus.
Museums, as Breitwieser seemed to point out every time we were in one together, already struggle to offer intimate encounters with art. Adding more guards, more security cordons, more fortified display cases, and more electric eyes is not likely to improve the experience.
In regional museums, there’s often an implicit social pact in force. The museum will permit close access to priceless objects that are marginally secured, and the public, in turn, will leave these objects undisturbed, respectful of the idea that works of communal heritage, often suffused with spiritual significance and a sense of place, should be open and accessible to all. Breitwieser was a cancer on this public good.
The Art Thief, as well as your previous books, The Stranger in the Woods and True Story, are about obsessive and antisocial criminals. What do you find most compelling about the stories you choose to pursue – or do the stories pursue you?
I deeply admire the world’s heroes and humanitarians, the valiant firefighters and fearless freedom fighters – I admire them like pristine and distant stars, untouchable. But when it comes to writing, I feel compelled to wallow in the mud. It’s the misfits, the scallywags, the rule-breakers, the criminal outliers that grab me.
These are the people I like to speak with. I’m not trying to excuse their criminality, but I am interested in getting to know the whole of such people, flaws and virtues alike. I suppose that I simply find outlaws to be interesting and unpredictable conversationalists. And perhaps the feeling is somewhat mutual – these are the people who seem to like speaking with me. Each of my last three books began with a handwritten letter to a person in prison, and each of those letters elicited a response. Maybe, in truth, we choose each other. 

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