5 of the Most Notorious Art Thieves, Swindlers, and Forgers of the 21st Century—and How They Were Finally Caught

These scammers of the art world concocted elaborate ruses that read like fiction, but all are true.

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“It seemed like a nice neighborhood to have bad habits in,” wrote Raymond Chandler in the classic detective novel The Big Sleep. Chandler wasn’t talking about the art world specifically, but the sentiment captures some of its well-heeled, occasionally unscrupulous dealings.

Right now now, there’s the mounting world-wide search for art dealer Inigo Philbrick, whose laundry list of alleged crimes include selling a work he didn’t own to multiple collectors, holding $14 million dollars of art hostage, and then seeming to disappear. But that’s nothing new under the crooked sun of art scamming. As we kick off the roaring 2020s we thought we’d round up the other leading stories of shady dealers, forgers, and thieves from the past two decades. 

Stéphane Breitwieser

The Scam: This notorious Frenchman stole at least 239 works from 172 museums throughout Europe between 1995 to 2001. Consistency was his skill: Supposedly he robbed an artwork every 15 days or so, often with the help of his former girlfriend Anne-Catherine Kleinklauss, who would stand as lookout as he removed paintings from their frames. What makes Breitwieser so intriguing is that his thieving lacked any financial necessity. Instead, he saw himself as something of a connoisseur, with a taste especially for 16th- and 17th-century works. His most expensive pinched painting was Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Sybille, Princess of Cleves, which was estimated to be valued at £5-£5.6 million.

How He Got Caught: He couldn’t quit while he was ahead. In November of 2001, Breitwieser filched a 16th-century bugle, of which only three are known to exist, from the Richard Wagner Museum in Lucerne, but a guard spotted him before he escaped. Seemingly insatiable, Breitwieser returned to the museum just two days later. A journalist named Erich Eisner happened to be walking his dog by the museum and, when he noticed a man who seemed out of place, surveying the museum, he alerted the very same guard who had spied Breitwieser a few days before. He was arrested in Switzerland, but it took authorities several weeks to get a search warrant for his home in France and in that time the thief’s spooked mother apparently destroyed a number of works, for which she was ultimately served just over 2 years in prison. 

Where He Is Now: Breitweiser would wind up spending two years in prison Switzerland before being extradited to France, where in 2005 he would be sentenced to an additional three years by a court in Strasbourg. After he was released he wrote an autobiography of his exploits called Confessions of an Art Thief. But even that publishing success couldn’t satisfy his thirst for theft and in 2011, police discovered 30 stolen works in his home, landing him in prison for three more years. And just this past February he was arrested once again, this time in relation to a 19th-century paperweight he tried to sell on eBay.

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