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Police suspect French art theft addict of more crimes

Published on 08/04/2011

Notorious compulsive art thief and collector Stephane Breitwieser is facing fresh charges after dozens of old masters were discovered at his home in France, police said on Friday.

An investigating magistrate interviewed the 39-year-old in the eastern city of Strasbourg on Friday with a view to charging him with handling stolen goods, chief police investigator Jean-Luc Laumont told AFP.

A grand-nephew of Alsatian painter Robert Breitwieser (1889-1975), Stephane shot to infamy in 2002 when he admitted stealing hundreds of works from museums, castles and palaces around Europe, supposedly for his own collection.

When he was finally arrested in Switzerland in 2001, his mother Mireille Stengel threw around 100 works of art worth several million euros into a canal, most of which were eventually recovered.

However, she also completely destroyed several works, including some by German Renaissance painter Cranach and Flemish master Bruegel.

Investigators on Wednesday found 28 paintings at Breitwieser’s flat, including two reported stolen from museums in Germany in 2007.

Police found another painting on Thursday, a miniature from the school of Bruegel worth around 50,000 euros (over 70,000 dollars), which was reported stolen from an exhibition in Belgium’s Namur in 2009.

The discovery of the paintings means he can be prosecuted for handling stolen goods. More charges could follow pending further information on the thefts from Belgian and German authorities.

Police questioned Breitwieser’s mother on Wednesday and she could also be charged with handling stolen goods after several antique chandeliers, candelabras and chalices were found at the bottom of a lake near her home.

“The enquiry will try to establish whether these objects were put there recently or in 2001,” Laumont said.

French police have so far interviewed eight people as part of their investigations, carried out in cooperation with Belgian and German liaison officers, including Breitwieser’s father and girlfriend.

Breitwieser says that he is a passionate collector who never sold any of the 239 paintings he admitted to having stolen between 1995 and 2001 from homes and galleries in seven European countries.

A Swiss court sentenced him to four years’ prison in 2003 after which a French court in 2005 sentenced him to three years in jail, 10 months suspended.

His mother was given a three-year suspended prison sentence for handling the paintings Breitwieser stole and for destroying or failing to look after them.