It's hard to imagine an art lover more ardent than Frenchman Stéphane Breitwieser, who spent seven years amassing paintings and objets worth up to $1.9 billion. It's harder still to imagine a collector more nefarious. Caught last November after he stole a 17th-century bugle in Lucerne, Switzerland, the 31-year-old waiter has since confessed to ripping off more than 170 small museums in six European countries, making him the most prolific art thief in history. His MO: He simply grabbed the goods and stashed them under his coat while guards weren't looking. His private gallery was a bedroom at his mother's home.

Still, Stéphane's audacity was soon surpassed—by that of his mother, Mireille, 51, who was arrested on May 14. Authorities say that Mme. Breitwieser, a nurse, admitted to chopping up 60 paintings—including masterpieces by Brueghel, Boucher and Watteau—and putting them out with the trash. In addition searchers have recovered 110 statues and musical instruments that Mireille dumped in the Rhine-Rhône Canal 70 miles from the pair's home in the town of Eschentzwiller, near the German and Swiss borders. "Mireille heard her son had been arrested and just believed she had to get rid of everything," says Alain Miribel, police spokesman for nearby Strasbourg.

While some of the soggy sculptures have already been refurbished, the paintings are gone for good. Indeed, connoisseurs are calling this the worst blow to Western cultural heritage in decades. "The willful destruction of works representing 60 top European masters is simply without comparison," says Alexandra Smith, a London representative of the Art Loss Register, an international organization that tracks stolen art. "To find anything like this, you'd have to look at something like what the Nazis did during World War II."

Details are scarce about the Breitwiesers, who remain behind bars while awaiting formal charges, but one acquaintance is unsurprised to find the odd couple under arrest. Retired sales director Roland Le Goff, 66, a former next-door neighbor in the Alsatian village of Ensisheim, describes them as "two sick people" who fought constantly and bombarded his family with harassing phone calls. "They made our lives a living hell," recalls Le Goff, who says he reported the Breitwiesers to the police at least a dozen times between 1994 and 1996, when the pair moved to nearby Eschentzwiller.

By then, investigators say, Stéphane had already launched his crime spree, beginning with heists from local art galleries and moving on to museums elsewhere in France, as well as in Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Austria and Belgium. Breitwieser—who claimed to be the grandson of a famous Alsatian painter, Robert Breitwieser (actually a great-uncle)—told police he usually went to each museum only once. But on Nov. 19 a guard called the cops after spotting him on a return trip to Lucerne's Richard Wagner Museum, where a 17th-century bugle worth $6,000 had gone missing after Stéphane's visit a week earlier. During the commotion, authorities say, Breitwieser's girlfriend, nurse Anne-Catherine Kleinklauss, 31 (later arrested as an accomplice), slipped away and alerted Mireille, who promptly began shredding canvases and stuffing the confetti-size remnants into used vegetable cans.

Mireille reportedly told prosecutors that she thought it would be sacrilegious to destroy at least one of her son's stolen treasures—a wooden figure of Mary and Jesus—so she placed it in a quiet country chapel, although she can no longer remember the location. Based on that and other information gathered while interrogating the Breitwiesers, investigators hope to recover more artwork. But for now, curators across Europe are still counting their losses—and mourning. "It's such a pretty thing and now destroyed," says a spokesman for the Château de Blois in France's Loire Valley, of a l536 oil-on-wood portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots that Stéphane pinched. As for the Breitwiesers, they are one mother and child that museum officials hope never to see again.

Patrick Rogers
Peter Mikelbank in Paris

  • Contributors:
  • Peter Mikelbank.