French waiter who stole 'for love of art' attempts suicide

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The Independent Online

A French waiter who has admitted stealing more than 200 works of art from museums across Europe tried to hang himself in his cell yesterday after the first day of his trial in Strasbourg.

A French waiter who has admitted stealing more than 200 works of art from museums across Europe tried to hang himself in his cell yesterday after the first day of his trial in Strasbourg.

Stephané Breitwieser, 33, was caught by prison officers after a cellmate raised the alarm. He appeared for the second day of his trial yesterday, despite the protests of his lawyer, Thierry Moser. "He has taken enough," Maître Moser said. "The trial should be brought quickly to an end."

Breitwieser was jailed for four years by a Swiss court in 2003 but was extradited to France last year. He is standing trial for a second time, in connection with the theft of 26 art objects which he allegedly stole in France, Austria and Denmark. The French public prosecutor has requested a further three-year term.

At the original trial he admitted stealing more than 200 paintings, statues, ancient weapons, tapestries and ornaments in a seven-year rampage through 140 minor, poorly protected museums, churches and châteaux in five countries.

Many of the works, including a minor Rembrandt and the 16th-century masterpiece Sybille, Princess of Cleves by Lucas Cranach the Elder, were torn up or dumped in a canal by his mother after his arrest in Switzerland in 2001.

Mireille Stengel, 53, is also on trial for "passively" receiving stolen goods, and vandalism. Breitwieser's lawyer said he felt "deeply guilty" that his mother was on trial.

During his first trial in Switzerland, Breitwieser admitted stealing 239 artworks, mostly from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, including minor works by Watteau, Boucher and Durer. He says he acted from love of art and he made no attempt to sell his acquisitions.

The former waiter cut painting from their frames, or shoved objects under his coat. He specialised in small works, but on one occasion took a tapestry which was 12ft square.

"Whether it was a Brueghel or a painting by an unknown, whether it was worth €1,000 or millions, it was the beauty of the work which attracted me, not its value," Breitwieser said in a statement to the court yesterday. The waiter regarded himself as a self-taught expert on 16th- to 18th-century art. He insisted that one of the paintings he stole was a genuine Watteau, a "key work", not a possible Watteau or the work of a pupil of the artist, as experts said.

He kept his loot in his two-room flat in his mother's house at Eschentzwiller, near Strasbourg. When he was arrested, his mother attacked the collection with a hammer and a knife and dumped other objects in a canal and a forest.The public prosecutor wants a two-year prison sentence for the mother.

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