So far in our big crime series of shows we’ve featured psychopathic murderers, criminal organizations that have spanned the globe, and gangs of thieves that planned and performed some of the world’s biggest heists. But the man we are going to talk about today doesn’t seem much like a criminal at all. He was and still is by no means hardened and couldn’t be said to be practiced in the arts of criminality.
He’s unlike any thief that has ever existed and while you would hardly call him an expert at his trade, he still managed to pull off scores of robberies that make him the world’s biggest thief in terms of the value of what he stole. That’s if we discount financial scams and focus on stolen goods. So, without further ado, welcome to this episode of the Infographics Show, The Waiter Who Stole $1.4 Billion.
The man we are talking about is called Stéphane Breitwieser, a Frenchman who was born on October 1st, 1971. He’s been called the world’s best, most notorious and most consistent thief. That’s because when he was in his mid-20s he somehow managed to steal around $1.4 billion dollars’ worth of art. He did this from 1995 to 2001 in countries all over Europe. His day job was as a waiter, but the young buck would occasionally turn into art thief its said once every 15 days. He stole 239 paintings and other exhibits from 172 museums and other places during these years.
Not much has been printed about his childhood, but there have been a handful of extensive newspaper features written about this lad. According to a 2005 story written about Breitwieser that was published by The Guardian, ever since he was very young he was spellbound by art, especially if it came from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. This is why he was unlike any other criminal out there, because he didn’t even try and sell his art bounty on for profit. He just kept all of it for his own collection. In his court appearance he said this, “Whether it was a Brueghel or a painting by an unknown artist, whether it was worth a thousand euros or millions, it was the beauty of the work of art that interested me.”
So, what did he steal and how did he do it?
Well, as for how he did it that was mostly a simple affair. He only preyed on places that were small and had lax security. He would sometimes use his girlfriend to cause a distraction, too, and when he thought the coast was clear he’d walk right up to the painting he adored, lift it from the wall and put it under his jacket. The first time he ever did this was when he fell in love with a painting he saw at a medieval castle in Bonn, Germany. That was a portrait painting by Swiss artist, Christian Wilhelm Dietrich. He had to pull out a few nails and wrestle the painting out, but he got it.
He later said of that particular piece: “’I was fascinated by the beauty, the qualities of the woman, by her eyes, which reminded me of my grandmother.” And he pulled off jobs like this successfully in seven Europeans countries, always picking small galleries or museums with laid-back security or better still, picking on antique shops and churches where security is often even more lax. Maybe our viewers are now getting ideas, seeing as some simple waiter can just walk out of buildings with expensive paintings in his jacket, but we must remind you that he did end-up getting caught. In total he hit places in Switzerland 66 times, France 68 times, 19 times in Belgium and 21 times in the countries of Germany, Denmark, Austria and Holland.
His most valuable piece of swag was a 16th-century painting by German Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach the Elder. The painting was called “Sibylla of Cleves”, another portrait of a woman, and that was worth between $8 million and $9 million. It’s thought that this is now sat at the bottom of a canal as it was one of the many paintings Breitweiser’s mother threw out. He also stole very valuable paintings by the Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder and the French painter François Boucher. Those too are thought to have been dumped somewhere by the man’s despairing mother. It was her house, where her son lived, where the paintings were stashed.
Obviously, we can’t go through all of the 239 pieces stolen, but in all they were valued at 1.4 billion. Police recovered around 110 pieces of the stolen works but some of those were recovered after being thrown out and so were not in the best condition. Around 60 other paintings were never found, and the rest of the swag was thought to be pottery, jewels and figurines, and it’s said many of those are floating at the bottom of a canal if indeed the mother was telling the truth.
“Destruction of canvasses on this scale is almost unprecedented,” said Alexandra Smith, of the Art Loss Register in London, after the news broke. The loving son did feel bad for his mom, saying after she was arrested, “I feel guilty for my mother. If you send her to prison, you will kill her. I apologize for everything. I’ll compensate the victims.”
But how did he get caught? Well, his first capture didn’t turn out too bad for him. That was in 1997 when Breitwieser was nabbed in Switzerland while trying to make off with a Willem van Aelst landscape painting. He had even been allowed in to see this exhibition after getting permission. As he and his girlfriend put the painting in the car they were both stopped by security, who had earlier been informed of a theft. The Swiss courts were nice to the pair, just handing him (there’s no mention of his girlfriend getting anything) an eight-month suspended sentence. He was told to leave Switzerland, but he didn’t. He kept his waiter’s job and carried on stealing.
His temerity was the end of him and his good luck ran out in 2001 when he was almost caught trying to steal a very expensive antique Bugle (a brass instrument) from the Richard Wagner Museum in Lucerne, Switzerland. He did get away that time, but this kid with too much confidence went back two days later to try and steal again. The security guard noticed him after being notified by a journalist walking his dog, and the police were called. He was arrested and jailed for two years in Switzerland and then extradited to France.
Police now knew that he was behind many other art thefts, but they had no idea how many. They found nothing at the mother’s house upon searching, as she had gotten rid of most of the stolen pieces by throwing them in the canal and even shredding some paintings. Apparently, she had little idea about the massive value of the works she was destroying. Breitwieser later told police exactly what he had stolen, and amazingly, he knew every piece by name and all the details about them. He even corrected details in court about the paintings when mistakes were made.
He was sentenced to three years in jail, while his girlfriend got 18 months for being his accomplice and his mother also got 3 years for the destruction of the art. Breitwieser ended-up serving 26 months; his girlfriend served 6 months and the mother served 18 months. He always felt guilty about what happened to his mum, once saying, “I can no longer talk to my mother because I feel so guilty and I’m too ashamed.” He added to that, “My girlfriend has left me, and I have no home, no money. All I have is a father and a few friends in prison.” It’s said he became very depressed while in prison over everything that had happened and tried to commit suicide.
When he got out, Breitwieser wrote a book about his exploits called “Confessions of an Art Thief” (translated from French). He tried to get money another way, and that was by trying to sell some works of art he had stolen after leaving prison. He was arrested for this in Germany in 2011 and on searching his apartment after being caught trying to sell a vase, they found 40 more pieces of art, mostly paintings but some tapestries, sculptures, chandeliers and even pocket watches. Police also found some works of art hidden at his mother’s house.
In the press at the time it was reported, “Since his release from prison, Breitwieser has allegedly committed thefts in France, Belgium, and Germany — staying a bit closer to home, since his previous crimes took him further afield, to places like Denmark and Austria.” In the same report a source close to the thief said, “He really loves art, but also the money that he can get from it.”
The bad boy waiter was sentenced to another three years in 2013. We can’t find any news about him for 2018, so perhaps he’s turned over a new leaf or perhaps he just hasn’t been caught yet.
While he had tried to sell some pieces, after interviewing Breitwieser psychologists said he definitely had an addiction to art just as people are addicted to drugs. They said he was an obsessive and he couldn’t control his compulsions. He’s known now as an art addict, but also the world’s greatest ever art thief.
What do you think about this man? Let us know in the comments! Also, be sure to check out our other video called What If You Only Drank Coke (Soda) and Nothing Else? Thanks for watching, and, as always, don’t forget to like, share, and subscribe. See you next time!