Mother of art thief is jailed after shredding masterpieces worth £1.2bn and dumping museum treasures in canal

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The Independent Online

The mother of an art thief was imprisoned yesterday after admitting she shredded up to 60 masterpieces by leading artists, such as Bruegel and Watteau, stolen in broad daylight from museums in five countries.

French police also dragged the Rhône-Rhine canal in eastern France looking for priceless objects, such as weapons, vases and musical instruments, dumped there last November by Mireille Breitwieser, 53, after her son was arrested.

The 50 to 60 paintings sliced up in panic by Ms Breitwieser and dumped in her dustbin or sink disposal unit at her home near Mulhouse were worth around £1.2bn. They included Cheating Benefits Its Master by Pieter Bruegel, and The Monkey's Ball by David Teniers.

Her son Stéphane Breitwieser, 31, is believed to have stolen 172 paintings and objets d'art from museums and chateaux in France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands over several years. After his arrest in Switzerland last November, his girlfriend went to his mother's house where the works were stored, apparently with her knowledge.

Ms Breitwieser panicked and drove 100 miles to dump the objets d'art in the Rhône-Rhine canal near Strasbourg, where some of them were later spotted on the muddy canal bank. When she got home, she sliced the paintings into tiny fragments and dumped them.

She was placed under criminal examination for receiving stolen goods and may face further legal action for destruction of works of art.

Objects worth €10m (£6m) have already been recovered from the canal.

Mr Breitwieser, who said he "loved art", told police he cut the paintings from their frames while his girlfriend kept watch. Mostly they raided poorly guarded provincial museums, but some of the works are believed to have come from the Louvre in Paris.