Book Review: ‘The Art Thief,’ by Michael Finkel

THE ART THIEF: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession, by Michael Finkel

At first, Stéphane Breitwieser, the subject of Michael Finkel’s “The Art Thief,” appears to be having an enviable amount of fun. Twenty-five years old and living with his girlfriend, Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus, in a small set of upstairs rooms in his mother’s home in a “hardscrabble” manufacturing suburb in eastern France, Breitwieser is unburdened by such quotidian concerns as a job, making rent or planning for the future. He fancies himself a purer sort of soul, so devoted to beauty he must, in Finkel’s words, “gorge on it.” Over the course of a dizzying 200 pages that are also an effective advertisement for Swiss Army knives (Breitwieser’s only tool), he removes artwork after artwork from museums — a.k.a. “prisons for art” — and becomes “perhaps the most successful and prolific art thief who has ever lived.” He piled all $2 billion worth of artifacts he amassed over eight years into that same attic in his mother Mireille Stengel’s “nondescript” stucco house.

Finkel includes satisfying evidence of this astounding loot in a color insert that shows a crammed jumble of “ethereal” ivory carvings, shining silver goblets, unctuous oil paintings and more. All this Breitwieser secreted away in the couple’s lair not to be fenced for money, but for the pair alone to enjoy waking up to in the morning: like George Petel’s 1627 sculpture “Adam and Eve” on the bedside table, next to a 19th-century blown-glass vase and a blue and gold tobacco box “commissioned by Napoleon himself.”

Finkel’s account, based largely on interviews with Breitwieser, is of a romantic hero who disdains practical details as much as security ones, and who is “crushed” when Stengel deigns to buy Ikea furniture. “I am like the opposite of everyone,” he declares, finding “his problem … incurably existential: He was born in the wrong century.” That Finkel aligns the reader’s sympathies with the point of view of the criminal makes for a heady rush of freudenfreude.

The romanticized portrait of a complicated male subject is a formula Finkel has found success with before: His best-selling previous book, “The Stranger in the Woods,” about the Maine hermit Christopher Thomas Knight, was similarly expanded from an article in GQ. Yet despite this book’s slim size, Finkel’s efforts to fill its pages eventually strain, padding them with generic musings on why people make art and head-scratching lines like, “Yellow is the hue least harmonious to a banana.” His reliance on tropes gives the book a paint-by-numbers feel: the bad boy; the cautious ingénue girlfriend who longs for a more normal life; the mother who “coddled” her son too much and claims she never once wandered up the stairs to confront what he was actually up to.

By the end, we’re left with signs that what we’ve been offered is only a rough sketch, not the more complicated truth. Finkel portrays Breitwieser as a pure aesthete motivated solely by aesthetic passion, but later he’s also arrested for simple shoplifting. Finkel writes that “the world’s beauty, to Breitwieser, peaks with Anne-Catherine and their art collection,” but in a shocking turn the author brushes past, Kleinklaus says under oath that Breitwieser hit her after learning she’d hid an abortion. “He scared me,” she tells a courtroom; to a detective, she says, “I was just an object to him.”

Finally, did Stengel really never suspect what her son was up to in her home? Was her frenzied “attic purge” — during which she hurled silver pieces into a canal and burned paintings in a forest — really the “ultimate expression of maternal love” Breitwieser interprets it to be? (She herself tells the police, “I wanted to hurt my son, to punish him.”) It is by far the most shocking act in the book, but — as with the characters of Stengel and Kleinklaus — Finkel leaves it frustratingly opaque. He renders every complication and contradiction in broad strokes, rushing ahead to a swift and unsatisfying conclusion, as though too taken in by his own romantic telling to disrupt it.

Great art, Breitwieser knows, surprises. “The Art Thief” — a popcorn flick of a book that will nonetheless keep readers riveted — does not.

Alex Marzano-Lesnevich is the author of the Lambda Award-winning “The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir.”

THE ART THIEF: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession | By Michael Finkel | Illustrated | 222 pp. | Alfred A. Knopf | $28

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