Theft for Collectibles: The Story of a French Art Thief

Stefan Brightweather robbed more than 200 museums, becoming a legend. But he did not sell anything on the black market, preferring to keep the stolen goods at home.

Stefan Brightweather in 2006 at the presentation of his book Photo JEF-Info
Stefan Brightweather in 2006 at the presentation of his book Photo JEF-Info

In February 2019, Stéphane Breitwieser was detained in France in France on suspicion of theft of objects of art . In the early 2000s, all the world’s newspapers wrote about this man as “the most sophisticated thief” responsible for the theft in more than 200 European museums. For this, he went to prison, and after leaving for a long time disappeared from the radar.

The story of Brightweather differs from the classic story about a skilled professional who penetrated museums for the sake of the subsequent sale of the loot on the black market. The Frenchman lived in poverty and, as he claims, perceived his collection as the most important and valuable thing in his life. GQ magazine studied in detail how the young man won the fame of a professional art thief, driven by the goal of creating his own treasury.

the Forbidden fruit

When Brightweather visited the museum, he looked like the most ordinary visitor. Buying a ticket, he was friendly with the workers, he looked neat and did not arouse suspicion. Once inside the hall, he quickly counted the guards, remembered whether they were walking around the museum or sitting. Marked the location of surveillance cameras and recorded whether they are connected to the network.

The important part of the museum on which the success of the operation depends is the quality of the floor. Ideally, it should be creaky and wooden to hear the approaching steps in advance. Worst of all with carpet. In the Belgian museum “Rubens House”, where Brightweather came with his partner Anna-Catherine Kleinklaus in February 1997, the floor was marble.

In 1997, Brightweather stole the sculpture of Adam and Eve from this room Getty Photo
In 1997, Brightweather stole the sculpture of Adam and Eve from this room Getty Photo

The task of Kleinklaus, to put it in extremely simple language, was to be on the lookout. She stood in the only aisle on the first floor of the museum and coughed gently, warning Brightweather as someone approached the hall. The partners were only 25 years old, but the Frenchman had already worked out his principles of museum thefts. According to the man, over the years he hasn’t sold anything stolen – stealing for money seemed stupid to him, because you can earn a much safer way. Another thing – the theft of the love of art.

In Belgium, Brightweather intended to kidnap a small ivory sculpture of Adam and Eve, which emerged from the hand of German sculptor Georg Petel in 1627 She was under a dome of organic glass, attached to the thick base of an old chest of drawers. The thief needed to unscrew the two screws connecting the dome and base. This is not so difficult, given the lack of cameras and the presence of only one security guard, who periodically left the premises, but in such cases, Brightweather was always careful.

Thanks to the Swiss army knife and co-worker, after about 20 minutes, Brightweather raised the dome, hid the sculpture under his jacket and quietly, but quickly, left the museum. Soon after, the couple flew to Germany, from where they safely reached home in the French city of Mulhouse.

By home was meant a small room with a bedroom on the top floor of the Brightweather’s mother house. Despite the fact that the sculpture of Adam and Eve is worth millions of dollars, its new owner lived poorly, working as a waiter. His girl was registered as a nurse in the hospital, and her salary left much to be desired. But it was hard to believe in all this by opening the French room.

He entered as if he was once again in a museum: on the walls were paintings of the Renaissance, including works by such masters as Adrian van Ostade, Francois Boucher or Albrecht Dürer. The space next to the bed of a young couple was filled with silver glasses, plates, vases and bowls. A golden snuffbox, which once belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte, as well as military weapons and rare musical instruments of the late Middle Ages, was visible nearby.

“My cave is Ali Baba,” Brightweather called this place. For him, it personified the aesthetic rest, here he felt comfortable. A little thought, the Frenchman put the stolen sculpture on a table near his bed to see her waking up.

Skillful duet

Brightwizer was born in the north of France in 1971. His father led the sales department in Switzerland, and his mother worked as a nurse. There was enough money, and the family lived in a big house filled with luxury and art of the past centuries. Collecting since childhood attracted the Frenchman, and long before the museum thefts he collected rare stamps, coins and postcards bought with pocket money.

Parents hoped that he would become a lawyer, but after a few years of study at the university bored the future thief, and he left. By the age of 22, the young man continued to live with his parents, watching their marriage rapidly disintegrate. The father left the house, taking with him the bulk of the property, leaving the former spouse and son with almost no means of livelihood. They had to move to a smaller place where antiques replaced furniture from IKEA.

At about the same time, Brightweather met Kleinklaus. Having the same passion for museums and art, they quickly found a common language, and soon the young man realized that he was in love. A few months later, the couple went to a museum in the village of Tan, where a Frenchman noticed an antique pistol. His father collected weapons, and memories of this prompted Brightweather to the idea that he, too, must have such value.

French Alsace region where Brightweather grew up Getty Photos
French Alsace region where Brightweather grew up Getty Photos

There were no guards, just like alarm systems, only a few volunteers. But the Frenchman sacked. His ex-girlfriend never spoke to the press about their relationship, so all currently known information comes only from a man. According to him, he went to Kleinklaus and shared with her his thoughts on the theft of a pistol, after which she allegedly said: “So come on, take it.” So he did.

Over the next three years, Brightweather stole more than 100 pieces of art, hiding in his room. He recalls that time with enthusiasm, arguing that it was then that he learned the meaning of life. The Frenchman’s thoughts were occupied by constant craving for the endless replenishment of her collection. Unlike professional thieves who sell objects of art on the black market, and then lie on the bottom, he committed thefts in different cities and countries at intervals of several weeks.

But it was not a chaotic pursuit of the values ​​of museums. All things in the man’s collection were created before the industrial revolution that began in the 18th century. He was attracted to things created without the participation of machines, only by human hands. He considered this the height of evolution, and, taking them from museums, he believed that he was saving them from extinction in the era of mass consumption.

Brightweather never cut the picture out of the frame, considering it vandalism. He also refused to twist the pieces into the pipe to make it easier to carry them out, believing that this was tantamount to the destruction of work.

“You have to control your movements, words and reflexes. You need a predator’s instinct, “- said the thief about his technique. He tried to steal only small objects, and always tried to remove the picture with the frame, then hide it in the toilet, and put the booty under his jacket. Sometimes he stole weapons, but always opposed achieving his goals through violence. Coming to the museum with a weapon was, he thought, disgusting.

The man claimed that in the thefts he was always helped by understanding how the guards work. At 19, he worked for about a month as a watchman in the historical museum in Mulhouse, noting that the security gives much more attention to visitors, less often paying attention to the state of the museum exhibits. In the case of the sculpture of Adam and Eve, the disappearance was quickly discovered, but at times, Brightweather managed to make it happen so that the disappearance was noticed only after a few days.

Like any collector, the Frenchman was attentive to trifles and was disgusted with all the signs of reproduction. In his collection there was a place only original and complete work. Sometimes he and his girlfriend even returned to the museum, from which they had already stolen something. Their record is 13 pieces of art in one museum.

Inability to stop

By the beginning of 2000, according to estimates of the Frenchman, together with her lover, they robbed about 200 institutions, carrying out about 300 pieces of art. Properly choosing places, “attacking” either large museums, regional churches, auction houses or fairs, they left the police. The nonviolent tactics of the couple helped a lot – the man believed that the best crime was something that passes unnoticed.

Once in a museum, Brightwizer noticed a thief and pointed a guard at him, and while he was arresting an intruder, he managed to hide a painting under a raincoat.

But there have been miscalculations. Once in the Swiss city of Lucerne, a man tried to steal a picture of the Baroque painter from the Netherlands, Willem Van Aalst. There was hot weather outside, so the beloved were without outerwear, under which one could hide the piece. In addition, they were almost the only visitors to the museum, which was located across the street from the police station.

Despite the girl’s warning not to take risks, Brightweather attempted to steal the painting, but a museum employee noticed that. He took them to the police station, where his teammates spent the rest of the day.

The couple convinced the police that this was their first theft, and this will not happen again. That was enough to let them go.

In Switzerland, police took fingerprints of thieves, and Kleinklaus explained that with this the risk of going to prison is much higher. Approaching the age of 30, the girl increasingly reflected on the family. She wanted children, but not from a person whom she had met for almost ten years. Life with the Brightweather began to seem too dangerous to her.

The Frenchman, however, was not going to stop his business. On this basis, the couple increasingly quarreled, the girl urged her lover to stop, but he rejected all the logical arguments. Thirst compelled him again to secretly go to Switzerland – to the country in which they promised each other not to steal anymore.

Returning to France with loot, he confessed to the girl that he did not put on gloves, as she had asked him, and in the museum in the same city where they had once been arrested, his fingerprints remained. He assured her friend that he would return and erase the evidence, but Kleinklaus volunteered to do it herself. She asked the man to stay at home, but he still went with her. Already in the museum’s parking lot, when the girl was about to go inside, she once again called him to stay in the car. To which the beloved said that he only wants to go.

He really stayed outside while Kleinklaus headed into the building. It took a little time before she came back. As the girl approached, Brightweather tried to read the emotions on her face when a police car stopped behind him. He did not resist when he was handcuffed and put in a car. There was only surprise on his face.

“Treasures” at the bottom of the channel

The next morning, November 20, 2001, the Frenchman spent on numerous interrogations. He denied all allegations of theft. In the end, he was arrested on the street when he had nothing to do with him. The reason for the detention was the testimony of one of the museum visitors – he was there on the same day when Brightwizer robbed him, and noticed him again when he was walking by the building. The man immediately informed the staff of the institution, who called the police.

In the end, Brightweather admitted that he had stolen an antique horn from a museum, to which the witness had reportedly lost. The man told the police that he did not know about the real value of the item and took it only because it looked beautiful. Investigators believed in this version and obtained a search warrant for a Frenchman’s apartment.

The police expected to find the stolen thing in the house, but when they opened the door, they saw only an empty room. There are no traces of the “treasures” that Brightweather has collected for so long.

“Ali Baba’s Cave” has turned into an ordinary room. And “Ali Baba” itself was without any connection with relatives and was close to breaking down.

In early 2002, the Frenchman was first taken out of his cell for interrogation for the first time in a long time. Police found that in addition to the horn, he stole a medal from another museum in the city. “We know you did it. Tell us, and after that everything will be fine. We will let you go home, ”the police officer assured the man. He obeyed, following Brightwizer. Then the investigator put in front of him a photograph of another object, in which the thief was suspected of stealing, and the process was repeated.

After that, according to the man, dozens of photos of things that he and his girlfriend had stolen over all these years were poured out in front of him. Completely losing control, he confessed to stealing 140 pieces of art.

But something was wrong. Looking through the photographs of his “treasures” in his hands, Brightweather wondered why there were no pictures among the frames, and things looked as if they were taken out of the water?

Police catch artwork stolen from a Frenchman by AP Photo
Police catch artwork stolen from a Frenchman by AP Photo

All details of the incident are still a mystery, since the mother of the thief and his ex-girlfriend did not communicate with the press. Brightweather himself spent a lot of time putting together all the pieces of the puzzle, relying on police reports and interviews.

He believes that after the arrest, Kleinklaus panicked. Deciding that the police would soon come home to the Brightwizer, she persuaded his mother to get rid of the evidence. Having collected all the savings in the room, the women considered the thief, took them in bags and dumped them into the Rhine-Ron channel, where they were later found. It happened by chance – a passerby noticed several decorations that were lucky not to fall into the water, and reported to the police. Pictures were waiting for a more sad fate – the women gathered them in a pile and burned them.

Collector without a collection

For Brightwizer, the news of the fate of his collection came as a shock. He did not communicate with anyone and seemed to have lost his ability to react to what was happening. Fearing that he might try to commit suicide, additional security was assigned to him. The thief twice (in France and Switzerland) was tried for theft and sentenced to four years in prison.

According to experts, this is a very easy punishment, given that the cost of a Frenchman’s collection, according to various sources, is estimated at a billion dollars. Brightwizer’s mother was found guilty of destroying works of art, but she spent only a few months in prison. At the trial, the woman claimed that she took her son’s things for a “pile of trash” and did not know their real price.

Kleinklaus did not incur punishment, stating at the trial that she had never participated in the thefts and did not know about the criminal activity of the beloved. Brightweather did not contradict her words. When he got out of prison in 2005, he found out that she started a family and gave birth to a child. Since then, they have not seen each other.

With the loss of a beloved business, the world has lost paint for the Brightwizer. In order to somehow make ends meet, he worked as a courier, cleaner and mowed the grass.

So slowly his life passed – the only outlet for him was visiting museums. In early 2018, he came across a booklet of the Rubens House Museum, where among the exhibits he saw the very sculpture of Adam and Eve. According to the man, he was in pain and disappointment when he saw the once-stolen item again.

For about a month, Brightweather fought the urge to go to Belgium and look at the sculpture. In the end, desire won out. He returned to the same museum from which he stole the sculpture 21 years ago.

Having spent a little time on her study, the man turned around and quickly left the building. But this time empty-handed. According to the story of Brightwizer, at that moment he almost burst into tears, regretting the lost time. But not about when he stole, but about when he stopped.

Stephan Brightwater looks at the sculpture of Adam and Eve Photo by GQ
Stephan Brightwater looks at the sculpture of Adam and Eve Photo by GQ

In February 2019, Brightweather was detained in France. The police suspected that he resumed thefts, and found in his rented apartment some ancient Roman coins and other items that may have been stolen from museums in France and Germany. At the time of writing, the man is in custody and is awaiting formal charges.

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