The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession by Michael Finkel
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
Publication date: February 16, 2023
Genres: Book Clubs, Non-fiction, Crime, History
I love books about art, whether they’re fiction or nonfiction so Michael Finkel’s The Art Thief was an easy reading choice. It’s the true story of a modern day art thief in France and is a heady combination of both fiction and nonfiction in that it’s true, but reads with the pace and plot twists of a thriller.
Stéphane Breitwieser was not a man who would stand out in person or on paper. In his late 20s, he’d never held down anything more than a temp job, and lived on the top floor of his mother’s house in southeastern France. His girlfriend Anne-Catherine is a nurse and provides what little income they have, along with handouts from his mother. Breitwieser’s only interest is art, especially 16th and 17th century silverwork, statues, and paintings. Not particularly unusual except for his obsession in owning the objects of his desire. This pathology led him to greater and greater risks and gave him the dubious distinction of being the most successful art thief in history.
In the late 1990s, Breitwieser amassed a collection of hundreds of pieces of art from over seven countries. The attic where he and Anne-Catherine lived was crammed floor to ceiling with priceless works taken from small museums, estate sales, auctions, and castles. The couple’s life focused solely on stealing art, with Breitwieser committing the act while Anne-Catherine acted as lookout. They drove around Europe for over two years, stealing three weekends out of four to amass a collection that was valued at $1 billion dollars.
The Art Thief is fascinating not just for its reenactments of Breitwieser’s crimes, but for the author’s deeper exploration into the man himself. Unlike most thieves Breitwieser didn’t steal to make money, he stole because he believed his love for each piece outweighed any other ethical or moral consideration. He knew what he was doing, he just didn’t care. His crimes involved months of planning and flawless execution, both enhanced by his ability to remain completely calm and composed when things went awry.
Finkel’s reporting and use of the psychological profiles done of Breitwieser, as well as his numerous interviews with the man make for surreal reading that juxtaposes the serenity of the art against the tension of those same pieces being stolen. The alchemy of the two makes The Art Thief a bewitching yet sordid story of one man who felt entitled to take what was not his without remorse.
If The Art Thief leaves you in the mood for more art reading I’d recommend B. A. Shapiro’s novel The Art Forger.
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