It’s All In the Wrist (and the Blatant Lying)

A gendarme, left, looks at French soldiers searching for art objects in a canal in Gerstheim, France, in 2002. Investigators partly emptied the canal to find objects and paintings stolen by Stephane Breitwieser, 31, suspected of stealing more than 172 art objects and paintings. Many of the treasures were discarded or destroyed by the his mother. (AP Photo/Cedric Joubert)

Forget grand, high-tech, multi-level Ocean’s Eleven-style heists; Stéphane Breitwieser robbed nearly 200 museums of $1.4 billion worth of art without a single computer hack. Instead, he relied on patience, a Swiss army knife, brazenness, and the fact that people — including museum security guards — are really bad at noticing things. Michael Finkel tells his story (and that of his girlfriend and accomplice, Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus) at GQ.

On their way to the exit, they’re stopped by a guard. They feign calm, but Breitwieser has a terrible feeling that the end has come. The guard wants to see their entrance tickets. Breitwieser, unable to move his left arm, awkwardly reaches across his body with his right to fish the tickets from his left pocket. He wonders if the guard senses something amiss.

A guilty person would cower and try to leave, so Breitwieser boldly tells the guard that he’s heading to the museum café for lunch. The guard’s suspicion is defused, and the couple actually eat at the museum, Breitwieser’s arm held rigid the entire time.

They rent a cheap hotel room and wait two days and return yet again, newly disguised, and he steals four more pieces. That’s a total of 13, and such is their level of euphoria that on the drive home they can’t contain themselves and stop at an antiques gallery displaying an immense ancient urn, made of silver and gold, in the front window.

Breitwieser enters, and the dealer calls from atop a staircase that he’ll be right down, but by the time he descends no one is there. Nor is the urn. They return to France plunder-drunk and giddy, and for fun, Breitwieser recalls, Kleinklaus phones the gallery and asks how much the urn in the window costs. About $100,000, she’s told. “Madame,” says the dealer, “you really must see it.” He hasn’t yet noticed it’s gone.

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