Prosecutor Pushes Maximum Sentence for Leading European Art Thief

STRASBOURG, France (AP) -- Back in court after a failed suicide attempt, a former French waiter who stole hundreds artworks from across Europe in a seven-year spree faced up to three years in prison as his trial drew to close Friday.

The state prosecutor also asked for a two-year prison sentence for Stephane Breitwieser's mother, who told the court she took a hammer to stolen paintings and other works worth millions after her son's arrest.

Breitwieser, 33, appeared agitated and worried after Thursday's first day of hearings and, prison officials said, attempted to hang himself in his cell that night. But his cellmate raised the alarm and Breitwieser was back in court Friday for the closing day.

The three-year sentence demanded by state prosecutor Anne Pauly was the maximum allowed.

Breitwieser has acknowledged stealing 239 artworks from Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland _ although he was only being tried in Strasbourg, eastern France, for 20 works stolen in France, plus two in Denmark and one in Austria.

During his seven-year spree, he spirited paintings and museum pieces including statuettes, silver, goblets and dishes out of the museums by hiding them in his rucksack or beneath his coat. He even threw items out of windows.

His mother, Mireille, said she ``blew a fuse'' after his arrest in 2001 and ``put everything into trash bags, the metalwork, the ancient porcelains, the ivories, paintings... I hit them with a hammer to push them down.''

Prosecutors said she chopped up some paintings and tossed other treasures into a canal, where 102 pieces -- watches, cups, vases, statues and others -- were later recovered from the mud and restored. Many other works, however, are thought to have been lost forever.

Alexandra Smith, operations director for the London-based Art Loss Register, said the case was unique.

``We've never come across anybody who's been so consistent at looting regional museums in Europe,'' she said in a telephone interview. ``He was probably one of the most consistently successful art thieves in existence.''

The prosecutor asked for a one-year prison term for Anne-Catherine Kleinklauss, Breitwieser's ex-girlfriend who acted as a lookout and was accused of receiving stolen items.

She ``used to chat up the guard and distract them while he took the items off the wall or out of the display cabinet,'' said Smith.

Breitwieser targeted small museums where security was weak.

Smith said many such establishments ``don't have very good security devices and also they can't afford to have one guard per room, so what they tend to do is have guards every second or third rooms who, every so often, rotate rooms.''

``I hate to say it, but it's probably easier than people imagine,'' she added.

Breitwieser, from a well-to-do family, has already served time in Switzerland, where he was sentenced to four years imprisonment for art theft. He was extradited to France in July.

Breitwieser's lawyer said he was motivated only by passion for art, and insisted he had never tried to sell his haul. Breitwieser told the court that as a boy he visited museums alone.

Swiss police arrested him in November 2001 when he returned to a museum to wipe away his fingerprints after stealing a hunting horn.

Bernard Dastries, an official from a French government office for combatting trafficking in cultural relics, told reporters the haul was worth an estimated euro10 million to euro15 million (US$13 million to US$20 million).