A Q&A with Michael Finkel, Author of July Indie Next List Top Pick “The Art Thief”

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Independent booksellers across the country have chosen Michael Finkel’s The Art Thief (Knopf) as their top pick for the July 2023 Indie Next List.

In The Art Thief, journalist Michael Finkel describes the heists and ultimate capture of notorious art thief, Stéphane Breitwieser. 

The Art Thief looks into the mind of one of the most successful art thieves in history. It’s a terrific psychological study of a true aesthete, and a look into how he was found and how laws changed after him,” said William Carl of An Unlikely Story in Plainville, Massachusetts.

Here, Finkel discusses his work with Bookselling This Week.

Bookselling This Week: One of the major draws for this story is Stepháne Breitwieser’s justification for his actions. Stealing for the love of art is a motivation that’s almost endearing. And that makes the decay of the artwork and his morals more painful to witness. You were able to witness some of that deterioration first hand. Do you want to talk a little about what it was like to follow this story, and to follow it to that specific end?

Michael Finkel: From the first time I wrote a letter to Breitwieser until today, it's been more than eleven years. It's not all I worked on for eleven years, but it was an extensive process, so I got to see a huge block of Breitwieser’s life. We'll leave the ending to be surprising to the readers, but there's a rise and a fall that I charted. I did interviews to learn about the rise and was eyewitness to the fall. It was sort of heart-rending and also on another level appropriate. All of his crimes are nonviolent, and his motivations seem nice, but he's still stealing from museums. The Public Museum is one of the great goods of the world, and this is a guy who abused public trust. There's a weird mélange of emotions that came through me as I watched the crash.

BTW: You invested more than a decade in this story. At this point, you’ve spent years corresponding with Breitwieser, visited museums with him, and attended his trial. Does it feel natural for that relationship to end once the story is done or do you tend to keep up with your subjects?

MF: I tend to exhaust the people that I'm interested in. One of the blessings and curses of being a true journalist is that I am naturally curious and always want to know more. I said that we conducted forty hours of interviews in the book. It was probably more like fifty or sixty hours. I think Breitwieser told me everything that he wanted to tell me. I'm happy to say that we maintain a relationship via email that is friendly, so I didn't piss him off. While I will remain curious about Breitwieser for the rest of his life, I think that our relationship has run its course.

BTW: You’re organizing all of this information from this vast timeline. What does your process look like?

MF: In one word or less, I would say inefficient. It seems to work for me. I'm happy with the book, but wow, everything seems just so inefficient. I wanted to read everything that had ever been written about art. I probably read 150 books and 5,000 newspaper or magazine articles to prepare for this. Now it was during COVID, but it was an entire year doing nothing but reading.

Renaissance art, which is Breitwieser’s favorite, was not mine. I wanted to educate myself on Renaissance art but then I was wondered, “What makes you like a piece of art?” I got into art theory and then scientific theory of the brain. I probably could have written an 800-page book about what we like about art. Ultimately, maybe two paragraphs of that ended up in the book. But readers are sharp people. Whether or not I'm showing off on the page, I think they sense whether there is a knowledgeable and competent person behind the prose. At least, that's my excuse for spending an entire year reading books.

BTW: During your research, did you discover any other favorite art thieves that we should look up? 

MF: This is a wonderful question. Breitwieser himself hated art thieves because 99.9% of them destroy the canvas. They don't give a crap about art. They just want money. And that breaks his heart because “if you really need money, there are many easier ways to get money than stealing from museums and trying to fence it.” But I was fascinated, and I really got carried away by people that steal books. Almost all book thieves are like Breitwieser, in that they steal out of sort of obsession and love. It feels like the same sort of motivation in a different route. So I spent weeks reading about book thieves. I really liked The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett. That was a fun read.

BTW: With the exception of your first book True Story, which sort of demanded your attention, what typically draws you to a story? And what are you going to tackle next?

MF: I'm really fortunate. I've been a full time writer for more than thirty years. I've had ups and downs in my career as is well documented. But one of the things that remained shockingly true to me throughout my whole career is that I have had no specialty in terms of subject. I have been fortunate enough to be able to write about what interests me. I spent time in Afghanistan after 9/11 and the Palestinian territories in Israel and even in Sarajevo. I worked for National Geographic for a while. When something grabs my interest, I don't fight against it. And lately, it's been unusual, intelligent criminals. I'm sort of fascinated by criminals and they seem to not mind talking to me. So why not go with that?

Briefly, my next book might be following along the same vein. I found a person (not D. B. Cooper) who’s a hijacker from the 1970s. He hijacked a plane, got a million dollars in cash in the suitcase, and disappeared for forty years. He was found in Portugal and he’s been speaking with me. That's my next project.

Not only do I write about whatever subjects that appeal to me, I love traveling. I love meeting new people and I even love the struggle with another language. I lived in France for a while and was highly motivated to improve my French so I could speak with Breitwieser. Maybe now it’s time to study a little Portuguese. And you know I’ll start to read everything there is to read about hijacking. So here we go again.

But first, I’m trying to have at least fifteen minutes of enjoyment that I've completed an eleven-year project. It’s like crossing the finish line of a marathon.

BTW: Could you talk a little bit about the role of books and indie bookstores in your life?

MF: I think there's really only two things you have to do to be a writer, which is read a lot and write a lot. Breitwieser’s parents dropped him off at museums because that's where he felt fulfilled, my parents would drop me off at an independent bookstore. It's the first place in my life where I remember being treated as an equal as opposed to being talked down to. They asked what I read and they suggested new things. I feel that I became a writer because of the suggestions of knowledgeable people in independent bookstores. 

Being chosen by independent bookstores as the number one pick is shocking to me. It’s probably the coolest thing that's ever happened in my career in terms of accolades.

To this day, I love Dolly’s Bookstore here in Park City, Utah. I love Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Montana, where I lived before. I was just in Aix-en-Provence, France and I wandered through Book in Bar, the English language bookshop. These places are my sanctuary.