Sun, Jan 09, 2005 - Page 7 News List

French art thief is sentenced after a long stealing spree

LOST MASTERPIECES After nabbing around US$20 million in objets d'art, the former waiter, his mother and girlfriend have all been sentenced


A French court handed a 26-month prison sentence Friday to a former waiter who stole hundreds of artworks from across Europe, a criminal feat an expert said probably made him one of the most successful art thieves around.

The court in the eastern French city of Strasbourg also ordered that Stephane Breitwieser pay damages, with the amount to be studied in May. The court concurred with the prosecutor's request for the maximum three-year sentence, but suspended 10 months of it. His lawyer said he did not plan an appeal.

His mother, Mireille, who told the court that she took a hammer to stolen paintings and other works worth millions of dollars to cover her son's tracks after his 2001 arrest, was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment with another 18 months suspended.

Her lawyer called the sentence severe and said they would study an appeal.

The prosecutor, Manon Brignol, had decried her destruction as scandalous.

As to Breitwieser, the prosecutor said: "Appropriating works of art in an egotistical and narcissistic manner is unpardonable."

Breitwieser's ex-girlfriend, Anne-Catherine Kleinklauss, who acted as a lookout while he stole, was given a six-month prison term with another 12 months suspended, but is expected to get her sentence reduced because she has a young child.

Breitwieser, 33, had earlier tearfully pleaded for leniency for his mother. He was in court Friday even though prison officials said he had attempted to hang himself in his cell overnight after Thursday's first day of hearings.

"It won't happen again. I feel guilty for my mother. If you send her to prison, you will kill her," Breitwieser said. "I apologize for everything. I'll compensate the victims."

Breitwieser has acknowledged stealing 239 artworks from Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland -- although he was only tried in Strasbourg for 20 works stolen in France, plus two in Denmark and one in Austria.

Alexandra Smith, operations director for the London-based Art Loss Register, said the case was unique.

"He was probably one of the most consistently successful art thieves in existence," she said in a telephone interview.

During his seven-year spree, he spirited paintings, statuettes, silver, goblets, dishes and other pieces from museums in his rucksack or beneath his coat. He even threw items out of windows.

His mother said she "blew a fuse" after his arrest and "put everything into trash bags, the metalwork, the ancient porcelains, the ivories, paintings ... I hit them with a hammer to push them down."

Prosecutors said she chopped up paintings and tossed treasures into a canal, where 102 pieces -- watches, cups, vases, statues and others -- were recovered from the mud and restored.

Many other works, however, are believed lost forever.

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