French art addict on trial for museum thefts

6th January 2005, Comments 0 comments

STRASBOURG, Jan 6 (AFP) - Stephane Breitwieser, a 33 year-old French hotel-worker who stunned the art-world when he admitted stealing more than 200 treasures from European museums, went on trial in Strasbourg Thursday for offences committed in France.

STRASBOURG, Jan 6 (AFP) - Stephane Breitwieser, a 33 year-old French hotel-worker who stunned the art-world when he admitted stealing more than 200 treasures from European museums, went on trial in Strasbourg Thursday for offences committed in France.

Breitwieser, who describes himself as a passionate art collector, was extradited in July from Switzerland where he had served two years of a four year term for similar offences. He faces a maximum three year jail term if convicted at the end of the two-day hearing.

Also facing charges in France are his mother Mireille Stengel, 53, and former girlfriend Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus, 33.

At his Swiss trial in February 2003 Breitweiser said he had taken 239 works, including masterpieces by Pieter Brueghel, Watteau and Durer and other items worth tens of millions of euros, that vanished from museums and galleries in seven countries between 1995 and 2001.

He stored the articles at his home in the village of Gerstheim near the German border. But at his arrest in 2001 his mother destroyed much of the collection with an axe and dumped other pieces in the Rhine-Rhone canal.

Items subsequently recovered from the canal included baroque chalices, ivory carvings and a silver galleon. However several highly valuable paintings such as "The Princess of Cleves" by Lucas Crannach and "Cheating Benefits its master" by Peter Brueghel were lost for good.

Stengel is being tried for receiving and destroying some 200 stolen items, Kleinklaus for receiving.

Breitwieser is suspected of taking some 70 works from French museums, but he is charged with just 20 thefts between 1999 and 2001 - the rest falling outside France's statute of limitations. Two thefts in Denmark and Austria also appear on the charge-sheet.

The Swiss court heard that he toured the continent posing as a collector and was surprised by the ease with which he could smuggle out works of art from poorly-guarded provincial museums, normally concealing them under his coat or in a back-pack.

After Breitwieser's arrest his mother said she destroyed the treasures "to punish my son for all the harm he has done me." She described him as infantile and narcissistic, and accused him of acts of violence against her.

Breitwieser's lawyer Thierry Moser said that he "feels very guilty. He says to himself - 'It was me who got my mother into this mess.' It is very hard for him."

© AFP

Subject: French News

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