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How to Steal a Masterpiece: Advice from the World’s Greatest Art Thief

7 minute read

First, says the art thief, forget about the movies.

Skylight entries, smoke bombs, and shootouts may be cinematic, but unless you want to go to jail, these are terrible tactics for stealing art. Violence and destruction in a museum only minimize your odds of success. Art crime, according to Stéphane Breitwieser, is best accomplished when no one knows that it’s happening.

Breitwieser, a 52-year-old Frenchman, is one of the greatest art thieves of all time. He stole over 300 works from museums and cathedrals across Europe, worth an estimated two billion dollars. While I was preparing to write a book about him, Breitwieser granted me dozens of hours of interviews, during which he revealed in great detail his criminal mind.

There’s never a need, he said, to force open a museum door, or crawl through a window, or rappel through a skylight. Don’t even come when the museum is closed. Ideally, arrive during lunch, when the crowds are thinner and the security staff rotates shorthanded to eat. Do not stress about parking the car – anywhere near the museum is fine.

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Don’t come alone. You’ll need a trustworthy accomplice as lookout. Breitwieser’s partner was his long-time girlfriend, Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus. To blend in with the tourists, they always dressed sharply. Cooler weather, Breitwieser emphasized, is preferable for stealing. This way, you can wear an overcoat – just make sure that your stealing coat is at least one size too big, and that your pants are a little loose at the waist.

The only tool necessary is a Swiss Army knife. Stash it in a pocket of your coat. The best way to gain access to a museum is through the main entrance. Purchase a ticket for you and your partner in cash. Walk in.

Once inside, note the flow of visitors and check for surveillance cameras. Are the guards sitting or patrolling? Select a side room that’s out of the main river of tourists, preferably a gallery with a single entryway and no security camera or permanent guard. It’s not hard to find such a spot in many museums, especially smaller ones.

As for the artwork to target, the piece should be small – for a sculpture, about the size of a brick; for a painting, no larger than a pizza box. More importantly, the work must be aesthetically attractive to you. Taking on all this risk for an object you don’t like, Breitwieser said, is the mark of a fool.

Station your partner at the entrance to the room. Agree on a warning signal. For Breitwieser and Kleinklaus, theirs was a brief cough. If visitors are in the room, wait for them to exit. Then move swiftly to your targeted item. If the piece is in a display case, the access panel will probably be bolted shut. It doesn’t matter; you’re not going to pick it – that’s difficult and time-consuming. Instead, leave the lock fastened and use what Breitwieser called the “silicone slice.”

Museum display cases are made of tempered glass or a clear acrylic like Plexiglas or Lucite, usually fused at the edges with silicone glue. A fine surgeon’s cut will release this seal, and by operating on a corner with the sharpest blade of your Swiss Army knife, hairline incisions both vertical and horizontal, the panels will loosen.

If your partner coughs, stop cutting and push the panels together. They should revert to their original position. Whether it’s a guard or a tourist that enters, abandon your posts and gaze contemplatively at various works in the room. Allow the gallery to empty again, then return to the mission.

Sometimes there will be two or three such disturbances. Don’t spend a suspiciously long time in one room – 15 minutes or so is the maximum. If there’s too much traffic, abandon the attempt. Try another room, or another day, or another museum.

The beauty of a completed silicone slice is that it permits the panels to flex open just enough to snake a hand through. Grasp your desired piece and wriggle it out through the gap. Now, brush aside your overcoat and tuck the object snugly into the waist of your pants at the small of your back. Readjust your coat so the artwork is covered. There will be a slight lump, but Breitwieser promises that no one will notice.

If you’re after a painting, the easy part is removing the work from the wall. Often all you have to do is lift it. The challenge is the frame; even on small paintings, most frames are too bulky to hide beneath an overcoat, no matter how roomy.

Breitwieser’s solution: turn the painting over and place it face-down on a display case or the floor. He used his Swiss Army knife to manipulate the clips or nails on the back until the frame was detached. If there was no time for such diligence, he put the work back on the wall and left empty-handed. When he removed a frame, Breitwieser liked to stash it in the gallery behind a window curtain or under a piece of furniture. Empty frames, he said, were his calling card.

To master frame removal, Breitwieser became an expert at putting frames on by apprenticing in a high-quality frame shop. To comprehend the degree to which museum guards actually pay attention, he worked as a guard one summer. Any good thief, he said, should prepare as thoroughly.

A painting that’s free of its frame, Breitwieser warned, is as vulnerable as a newborn. With extreme care, place the painting at your back, cushioned between your shirt and overcoat.

Now leave the museum with your partner. No matter how covert your actions, the theft will likely be noticed quickly, triggering an emergency response. The police will be called. The museum could be locked down, and all visitors searched.

Hustle to the museum’s main exit, but never run, inside the museum or out, even if you hear police sirens approaching – especially then. Walk to your car, place the stolen work gently in the trunk, and drive off.

Do not speed! The last thing you need now is to be stopped by a cop. Once at home, put the work in a place where no one might accidentally see it. Breitwieser and Kleinklaus stashed their loot in the bedroom they shared, which they always kept locked.

Admire your stolen work to your heart’s content, but one thing you absolutely can not do, Breitwieser said, is sell it. Trying to sell a stolen piece for money is how most art thieves get caught. Police detectives who specialize in art theft are trained to uncover these transactions. If you need cash, said Breitwieser, get a job. Money can be made with far less danger than art crime.

Steal all the art you want. Starting in 1995, Breitwieser and Kleinklaus committed an average of one theft every two weeks for seven years. But it’s probably best to rid yourself of any social or moral conscience you might have. Or, you can do as Breitwieser did, find a reason to justify your actions. Rather than an art thief, Breitwieser considered himself an art liberator, freeing masterpieces from uncomfortable and crowded confines. This way, stealing from a museum – one of the miracles of modern society, offering public access to priceless works of communal heritage – won’t bother you at all.

Also, it would be best if you did not have any friends or relatives, or need a repair person, because you can never invite anyone into your home.

Finally, do not make any mistakes, either while stealing or hiding art. Being human, you may find this impossible. In which case, be prepared to spend time in jail. Breitwieser was imprisoned for years. Accept that you may have a criminal record for life.

Or, instead, you can just leave the work in a museum and visit it whenever you like.

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