Art thieves come from all backgrounds

Former FBI art theft investigations manager speaks during Pub Night Talk in Bothell.

They’re most known for their appearances on PBS Television’s “Antiques Roadshow.” Russell Pritchard III and George Juno were experts on the show, giving bad and sometimes good news to people who brought their treasures and junk in for appraising.

But they used this reputation off-camera to gain the trust of unsuspecting owners of Civil War military-related artifacts. They defrauded people of their valuables by undervaluing their items, reselling them for higher prices and pocketing the profits. The scheme landed them in prison.

This was just one story shared by Lynne McKee, former manager of the FBI Art Theft Program, on Aug. 27. The Haynes’ Hall at McMenamins Anderson School in Bothell was filled to the brim and standing room only for those who wanted to hear McKee talk about her dealings in recovering stolen pieces. McKee coordinated the investigations into illicit trafficking and recovered more than $300 million in art and antiquities during her eight years as manager.

The talk was part of Pub Night Talks, a free monthly lecture series cosponsored by the University of Washington Bothell and McMenamins.

Based on McKee’s presentation, it’s easy to see that art theft comes in many shapes and forms. And the thieves of fine art are of all backgrounds.

Stéphane Breitwieser managed to steal 239 artworks from 172 museums around Europe, from 1995-2001. His most valuable stolen piece would fetch more than $6 million at auction.

He was also a waiter who lived with his mother.

Breitwieser and his girlfriend, in tandem, worked to take the artworks he was enamored with — that was until they got caught.

While Breitwieser was arrested, his girlfriend called his mother, alerting her that the police had detained the art thief. In response the mother began to destroy the fine works. Some of the art was recovered while some never was.

In the United States, it’s not typically waiters committing theft from museums, McKee said. Most museum theft in the country is not committed by hardened criminal, but rather internal people who take advantage of storage units where works are stored for years before being put on display.

McKee also spoke on the many fakes and forgeries she comes across. They’re often offered on the market as being “stolen from a museum in France,” McKee said. “It’s always the same story.”

For more information on Pub Night Talks, visit