H E CALLED THE sensation a coup de cœur: a blow to the heart. When he stood in front of an artwork, Stéphane Breitwieser felt exhilarated. A tingling sensation would flood his body, starting in his hands, and before long he would get to work on the screws or seals that kept him from the object of his desire. Once liberated, the item would usually be sequestered inside his coat, down his trousers or in his girlfriend’s handbag. Mr Breitwieser would then transport his loot back to the attic of his mother’s house in Mulhouse, in eastern France, where he still lived.
That covetous compulsion struck him a lot. Between 1994 and 2001 he stole well over 200 items from museums in seven countries; Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus, his girlfriend, often kept watch. Though his preference was for Flemish goods or art of the late Renaissance—such as Corneille de Lyon’s portrait of Madeleine de France (pictured)—Mr Breitwieser’s tastes ranged widely. As well as pieces by Boucher, Jan Brueghel the Elder, Cranach, Dürer and Watteau, his collection included ivory sculptures, tapestries, altarpieces, musical instruments, tobacco boxes and weaponry. Experts value the haul at somewhere between $1bn and $2bn.
As Michael Finkel recounts in “The Art Thief”, Mr Breitwieser was an extraordinary criminal, and not just because he was extremely prolific. (He managed, on average, a theft every 12 days for seven years.) His heists did not involve a squadron of marauders working under the cover of night. He did not prepare sophisticated plans months in advance. His art-stealing epiphanies “emerge from the spot where spontaneity and simplicity meet”, Mr Finkel writes. His larcenous philosophy was: “Don’t complicate things.”