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Collector admits theft of art treasures

A painting by Johann Hamza, allegedly stolen from the Fischer Gallery in Lucerne by Stephane Breitwieser.

(www.fischerauktionen.ch)

A 31-year-old French art enthusiast has admitted to stealing 239 artworks from museums and galleries in 16 Swiss cantons and six European countries.

Stephane Breitwieser was arrested in Switzerland last November on an international warrant issued by French authorities. He reportedly stole the artworks over a period of six years before his arrest in Lucerne.

He also appeared before a court in February, in canton Vaud, where police are investigating the thefts of art treasures worth at least $900 million (SFr1.4 billion).

Breitwieser is believed to have targeted smaller museums and art galleries, which are more vulnerable to theft because of a lack of funding and poor security. The stolen objects, dating mainly to the 17th and 18th century, included paintings by Antoine Watteau, Peter Bruegel and François Boucher.

New investigations

Among the museums that Breitwieser allegedly robbed in French-speaking Switzerland were the Château de la Sarraz, the Alexis Forel museum, and Château d'Aigle. However, investigations have opened into several thefts in Fribourg, particularly at the Art and History museum and the Château de Gruyères.

During his detention in Vaud, Breitwieser faced questions on 19 occasions with an investigator specialising in the theft and illegal traffic of valuable art objects.

During these sessions, Breitwieser established a rapport with the investigator, and finally confessed to 98 further offences, which were not related to thefts in France.

According to the Swiss Federal Justice Ministry, Breitwieser had also been questioned in the presence of French police.

Breitwieser's mother, Mireille, is also under criminal investigation in Strasbourg, France - along with his companion, Anne-Catherine Kleinkauss, who is believed to have acted as a 'look out' while he stole from museums.

Mireille Breitweiser is suspected of throwing several of the stolen artworks into the Rhone du Rhin canal near the family home in the eastern Alsace region, and of slashing some of the stolen paintings beforehand.

swissinfo with agencies

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