58 pages 1 hour read

Michael Finkel

The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession

Nonfiction | Biography | Adult | Published in 2023

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Summary and Study Guide


The Art Thief is a 2022 work of narrative nonfiction by American author and journalist Michael Finkel. The book tells the story of Stéphane Breitwieser, one of history’s most prolific art thieves. Between 1994 and 2002, he stole artwork with an estimated value of up to $2 billion from European museums, galleries, and churches. Unusually, Breitweiser’s heists were not committed for monetary gain. Instead, the art thief was motivated by a desire to surround himself with beauty. Throughout the text, the author interweaves elements of true crime, art history, biography, and psychological analysis. Finkel’s themes include The Appreciation and Power of Art, The Psychological Aspects of Criminal Behavior, and The Impact of Art Theft on cultural and historical aspects of society.

This guide uses the 2023 Simon & Schuster e-book edition.

Content Warning: The source material includes references to addiction, toxic relationships, confinement, abortion, suicidal thoughts, and a suicide attempt.


Breitwieser grows up in a home furnished with antiques. A loner, he is happiest when digging for ancient artifacts with his grandfather. While Breitwieser’s father is authoritarian, his mother, Mireille Stengel, indulges him. When his parents divorce, he and his mother move to a cheaply-furnished apartment. Breitwieser generally survives on government welfare and handouts from his mother and grandparents. During a brief stint as a museum guard, he steals an ancient belt buckle. He keeps it, along with other treasures, in a blue plastic box.

In 1991, Breitwieser falls in love with Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus. The couple lives rent-free with Breitwieser’s mother, occupying the attic. In 1994, Breitwieser and Anne-Catherine commit their first joint theft of an 18th-century pistol. During the summer of 1995, the couple steals regularly, alternating between France and Switzerland. They largely target regional museums with low security measures. Breitwieser and his girlfriend dress in second-hand designer clothes to appear wealthy and respectable. Anne-Catherine moderates the nature and frequency of their crimes, terminating missions if she considers them too risky. When Mireille Stengel sees them return home with works of art, her son claims they are fakes or flea-market bargains. Soon, the attic is crammed with stolen art. Breitwieser’s favorite piece is an ivory sculpture, Adam and Eve, which he keeps by his bedside.

In May 1997, Breitwieser steals a painting from a Swiss art gallery, ignoring Anne-Catherine’s warning that it is too dangerous. The couple is arrested, receiving suspended sentences and fines. They are also prohibited from entering Switzerland for three years. Anne-Catherine is pregnant and, shortly afterward, secretly has an abortion. When Breitwieser finds out, he drives to Anne-Catherine’s workplace and slaps her across the face. Anne-Catherine moves out for four months until Breitwieser persuades her to return. From then on, she refuses to participate in thefts. Anne-Catherine insists Breitwieser must be more careful and never perform a heist in Switzerland again. Unbeknownst to his girlfriend, Breitwieser starts stealing increasingly large items from Swiss churches and museums. The attic is so full that breakages occur.

In November 2001, Anne-Catherine is furious to learn Breitwieser has stolen a bugle from a Swiss museum without wearing gloves. She insists on returning to the scene to wipe away his fingerprints. However, a museum guard recognizes Breitwieser, and he is arrested. Breitwieser admits to the bugle theft, and the Swiss police are granted a warrant to search his home. Mireille Stengel denies any knowledge of her son’s crimes. When the officers enter the attic, it contains only a four-poster bed.

Breitwieser admits to stealing 107 items recently recovered from a French canal. He then confesses to further crimes, believing he will receive a lighter sentence for his honesty. Throughout his confession, he insists that his mother knew nothing about his crimes, while Anne-Catherine was opposed to them. Breitwieser is shocked when the police reveal that the stolen artworks are no longer in the attic. Eventually, Mireille Stengel admits that she disposed of all her son’s possessions in a fit of rage.

Breitweiser is tried twice—in Switzerland and then in France. He plans to die by suicide with a noose made from dental floss, but a prison guard intervenes. His repeated attempts to contact Anne-Catherine are unsuccessful. At the Swiss trial in February 2003, he receives a four-year sentence (including time already served) and is fined hundreds of thousands of dollars. The French trial of Breitwieser, Mireille Stengel, and Anne-Catherine begins in January 2005. By this time, Anne-Catherine has a 19-month-old son by another man. Her attorney argues that Breitwieser coerced her into being his accomplice. Anne-Catherine is fined but released without a criminal record. Stengel receives a four-month jail sentence and is also fined. Breitwieser is sentenced to a further two years in prison.

On his release, Breitwieser rents a cheap apartment. When he writes to Anne-Catherine, she reports his probation violation, and he is sent back to jail for 15 days. A month after his second release, Breitwieser moves in with a new girlfriend, Stéphanie Mangin. He also accepts a publisher’s $100,000 offer for a ghost-written memoir—Confessions of an Art Thief. On the journey to see his publisher in Paris, Breitwieser steals clothing from a designer boutique. He is arrested and undertakes three weeks of community service. Confessions of an Art Thief receives negative reviews, and journalist Vincent Noce publishes an unflattering book about Breitwieser called The Selfish Collection.

Breitwieser visits a Belgian antiques fair and steals a painting valued at approximately $50 million. When Stéphanie discovers where the artwork came from, she throws Breitwieser out and reports him to the police. In 2015, Breitwieser is released from prison again. A year later, he begins stealing from museums and selling the goods on internet auction sites. In 2019, he is arrested, but the Covid pandemic delays his trial.

A few months before his arrest, Breitweiser visits the Rubens House in Belgium with author Michael Finkel. He views the ivory carving of Adam and Eve, which has been recovered and is back on display. As he exits the museum, Breitwieser steals a booklet featuring a photograph of the sculpture.