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Back in 1982, and amid the proliferation of “Handbooks,” Jim Fisk and Robert Barron released The Official MBA Handbook. It was a tongue-in-cheek guide for MBAs eager to prosper, and my MBA father (presumably like many others) bought it for the laughs. I was too young at the time, but read it over and over again in my teen years. It was, and presumably is (I’ve just re-ordered it on Amazon) a blast.  

One of the segments of the book was a questionnaire for MBAs to answer as a way of gauging how far along the path toward success they were. One question concerned the art on your walls, and if you had Leroy Neiman paintings, you automatically disqualified yourself. It was funny then and it’s funny to think about now. Arguably the mass appeal of Neiman’s art rendered it declasse.

The disdain for Neiman’s works came to mind while reading Michael Finkel’s new book, The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession. It’s the story of Alsatian loner Stephane Breitwieser’s rise, and predictable fall, as the world’s most prolific art thief. With the help of girlfriend Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus, Breitwieser managed to steal what’s estimated to be up to $2 billion worth of art; “wristwatches, tapestries, beer tankards, flintlock pistols, hand-bound books,” plus silver cups, vases, bowls, not to mention oil paintings (late Renaissance and early Baroque styles) from the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Given Breitwieser’s keen eye for specific art, and his intense love of art, one guesses he would think of Neiman’s paintings the way the way that “craft beer” lovers think about Budweiser.

As Finkel describes him, Breitwieser “believes he is a literal seer, one of the chosen few who can perceive the true beauty of things.” Finkel reports that Breitwieser’s collection of books on art exceeds 500, and these are books he actually reads. There are also all manner of “academic papers on silversmiths, ivory carvers, enamelists, and sword builders.”

More important, Breitwieser is not stealing the art for the money. Art is beauty because it’s art, not for what it can procure. All of which raises a question: given the fact that stolen anything is investigated, why steal art that, assuming you sell well-regarded pieces, will expose you as the thief? Finkel addresses this question. He writes that “the going rate for stolen works is 3 to 10 percent of retail.” Which obviously leads to more questions: why risk incarceration for that which fetches so little when “fenced”? Finkel doesn’t dive deep on these questions, though in his defense Breitwieser is once again not in it for the money.

Better yet, according to Finkel, art thieves “disgust” Breiwieser, “virtually all of them, even the most accomplished ones.” Their thieving involves guns, fear, and sometimes violence. Breitwieser feels he’s different. He lifts what’s precious during the day. In Finkel’s words, “it’s lunchtime,” which means “stealing time.” Since security guards are human, “they get hungry.” Instead of force, Breitwieser’s craft is a “daytime affair of refined stealth in which no one so much as senses fear.”

All of which leads to questions about what Breitwieser wants out of art that he thrills in stealing, but that he has no intention of selling. Finkel’s answer is that Breitwieser views museums as “prisons for art. They’re often crowded and noisy, with limited visiting hours and uncomfortable seats, offering no calm place to reflect or recline.” Which presumably explains why merely visiting museums doesn’t satisfy Breitwieser. He professes to steal art in order “to surround himself with beauty, to gorge on it.” And so he does.

Eventually, Breitwieser and Kleinklaus store what is once again estimated to be $2 billion worth of art in two rooms reached by a narrow stairway in his divorced mother’s “humble” house located in Mulhouse, “one of the least attractive areas in France.” The duo have a four poster bed, and from that bed they look at Breitwieser’s own masterpiece as it were.

About this, readers are surely wondering how, beyond hungry and perhaps bored security guards, Breitwieser was able to take so much. Finkel’s answer is perhaps obvious, but it’s also interesting: as he explains it, a museum’s mission “isn’t to conceal valuables but to share.” Again, obvious, but very interesting just the same. Museums could presumably be impregnable vaults, but then they’d no longer be museums. Instead, they’d truly be “prisons for art.” Which means the ease of protecting the valuables isn’t as clear cut as most would assume, and that’s true even during the daytime when Breitwieser would strike.

Most interesting to me in the book was Finkel’s discussion of the art that most appealed to Breitwieser. Finkel quotes Breitwieser as saying that “I took refuge in the past.” No doubt, and this surely informs his thefts. As mentioned, the paintings that most appeal to him are from the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. Breitweiser stole the production of beauty from “the period just before machines took over.” The latter is fascinating simply because life pre-machine was plainly defined by unrelenting drudgery, poverty, and fatal illness. Notable about illness is that an Adam and Eve sculpture lifted by Breitwieser was created by Georg Petel who, in the words of Finkel, “never had the chance to discover the full depths of his mastery. In 1635, he died of the plague at age thirty-four.”

What makes all of this so interesting is the economics of art creation that Finkel articulates so well: “art is the result of facing almost no survival pressure at all.” So very true, only for it to raise more questions: how was so much beauty produced so long ago, and at a time when one’s daily existence was defined by “survival pressure.” No expert at art, and not really interested in art, Finkel’s book sparked other interests for me.

Better yet, it signals an amazing present and future for the production of beauty. Think about it. If art was created back before the age of the machine, imagine what’s ahead as so much human effort is mechanized such that survival is a given. It’s all a way of saying that the future is bright for survival, and by extension the creation of endless art.

Applied to Breitwieser, was he just a lover of beauty born too late, or perhaps too early in light of what mechanization means for those with an artistic bent? It’s perhaps easy to assume too late, but more difficult in consideration of how Breitwieser’s life unfolds. Lover of beauty or not, it was fairly easy to conclude even a quarter of the way through The Art Thief that Breitwieser was despicable. What tipped the scales for me in this highly interesting book was Finkel’s observation that “many regional museums rely for security, to a shocking degree, on public trust.”

The above observation says it all. Though Breitwieser fancied himself an art liberator, Finkel rightly points out that he “is a cancer on this public good.” It’s people like him that will turn museums into the bank vaults that will really and truly imprison art, all the while making the world an uglier place.

John Tamny is editor of RealClearMarkets, Vice President at FreedomWorks, a senior fellow at the Market Institute, and a senior economic adviser to Applied Finance Advisors (www.appliedfinance.com). His latest book is The Money Confusion: How Illiteracy About Currencies and Inflation Sets the Stage For the Crypto Revolution.

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