Stephane Breitwieser - collector, connoisseur, thief

Stephane Breitwieser never imagined that his heart would be pumping through his chest as he left the grounds of a medieval castle at Bonn, Germany in March 1995.

He's a lover of the arts and all things historical, but it wasn't the castle itself that had set his pulse racing.

Earlier, as Breitwieser and his girlfriend has paced the magnificent halls of the castle that they had decided to visit as part of their vacation, something caught his eye.

A small painting of a woman, inconspicuous among the finery of the castle. But there was something about the way she had been painted: the lighting, the depth.

"I was fascinated by her beauty, by the qualities of the woman in the portrait and by her eyes. I thought it was an imitation of Rembrandt," the Frecnhman would later explain.

Breitwieser signing copies of his book, Confessions d'un voleur d'art

He called to his girlfriend, telling her to keep watch for the guards. Following his lead, Anne-Catherine Kleinklauss turned her back. By the time she faced Breitwieser again, the painting had been wrestled from its frame and hidden in the folds on his jacket.

Breitwieser had never set out to be an art thief. His father had been a collector with a stunning array of antiques and art, but when he left, the collection went with him, and the young Stephane vowed to start his own collection.

But his waiter's salary simply didn't allow for that kind of collection. Spurred by his love of art, plus the excitement that his first theft had brought, Breitwieser found himself lifting an ancient crossbow from its mount at another museum just two months later.

It was the beginning of an art theft career that would last for more than six years, with Breitwieser and Kleinklauss hopping across Europe, visiting small institutions where sleepy security could easily by bypassed.

Breitwieser never attempted to sell any of the artworks he stole. He had been enamoured with the idea that he was secretly "the wealthiest man in Europe", the artwork enriching his life as he spent hours admiring it in his bedroom at his mother's house in France.

Yet lack of profit didn't halt his ambitions, and soon Breitwieser found himself cutting a masterpiece - Sybille, Princess of Cleves by Lucas Cranach the Elder - from its frame prior to a Sotheby's auction at which it was to be sold. The painting was valued at around $8.2m.

Sybille, Princess of Cleves was unceremoniously cut from her frame at a Sotheby's auction

"My selection criteria: a magnificent blue sky and wonderful people," said the art thief according to the Guardian newspaper, insisting that he "didn't just go to museums to steal".

Breitwieser would meet his undoing to the dramatic soundtrack of Wagner. In 2001, he paid a visit to the Richard Wagner Museum in Lucerne, Switzerland, and casually walked out with a $75,000 bugle from 1584 - one of only three of its kind.

Yet the museum's guard had caught a glimpse of Breitwieser as he left. Returning to the scene of the crime two days later, he was spotting acting oddly by a journalist walking his dog, who told the guard. The police were contacted, and the journalist's dog was awarded a lifetime supply of food for his part in the capture.

Police arrived at Breitwieser's mother's house almost a month after his arrest, with Breitwieser still in jail, but found nothing. She had been alerted to her son's arrest and had destroyed many of the artworks: she stated out of anger at Breitwieser's actions, but police still believe she was attempting to hide the evidence.

Priceless artefacts were launched into the Rhone-Rhine canal. Dozens of old master paintings were shredded with scissors. Others were burnt. Around 110 pieces have been found, though 60 are presumed destroyed forever.

A painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder is among those presumed lost forever

"Never have so many old masters been destroyed at the same time," a Strasbourg policeman told the Guardian. "The works can never be replaced."

Extradited to France, Breitwieser, his mother and his girlfriend all faced jail time once he had confessed.

Originally sentenced to three years, Stephane Breitwieser was released after 26 months in a Strasbourg jail, but the cost of his collecting obsession was much higher.

"I feel guilty for my mother. If you send her to prison, you will kill her. I apologise for everything. I'll compensate the victims," he told the court as he revealed his encyclopedic knowledge of the works he had stolen.

"I can no longer talk to my mother because I feel so guilty and I'm too ashamed. My girlfriend has left me and I have no home, no money. All I have is a father and a few friends in prison."

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