Art theft is rarely sordid, rarely violent. It is, in fact, a rarified and cultured kind of crime, one that every aesthete, in the darkest cockles of their hearts, admires. That lusty feeling that seeps into one’s bones as everyone else passes on like shadows while you stare at that thing—that marvelous thing—that seems to have sprung like Athena fully formed from your head, that feeling if why art is stolen. Sure, you might cry, but what about money? What thief could care less about the cold, hard cash a thing is worth?
Exemplia Gratis: Stephen Breitweiser. This young (not to mention, rather attractive) Frenchman lived in his mother and worked as a waiter for 10 years. He and his girlfriend often went on weekend trips to the ancient castles and house museums of Europe. Meanwhile, he was was collecting, via duplicitous mean, 16th and 17th century European masterpieces. In 2001, he was caught attempting to steal a bugle, one of only three like it in the world and with an estimated value of £45,000, in Switzerland. But it was only when he came back two days later to try again that he was arrested.
In his trial, he admitted to stealing 238 artworks. Why? According to Wikipedia, he said at his trial, “”I enjoy art. I love such works of art. I collected them and kept them at home.” Despite the enormity of his collection, he was still able to recall every piece he stole. He interrupted the lengthy reading of his collection during his trial several times to correct various details.” What more noble motive for theft than a love of beauty. The illguarded, barely visited museums dotting Europe have their share of visitors no doubt, but who loved those pieces as he did. The desire to posses each one must have been an all-consuming passion. How often does an indivudal fully realize one’s passions? His success ought to be commended and held forth as exemplary.
Instead, Breitwieser was given a 26-month prison sentence. While that is the unfortunate outcome of gambling with society’s laws, the real loss—and no doubt the one the Stephen himself felt most—was the loss of the paintings. Over 60 paintings, including masterpieces by Brueghel, Watteau, Francois Boucher, and Corneille de Lyon were chopped up by Breitwieser’s mother, Mireille Stengel, in what police believe was an effort to remove incriminating evidence against her son. And really, for such a man, is that in itself not punishment enough?
Even more laudable is the theif’s attitude toward the whole debaucle. Capitalizing on his capture and new-found notoriety, he wrote a book.