updated 1/7/2005 7:55:03 PM ET 2005-01-08T00:55:03

A French court handed a 26-month prison sentence Friday to a former waiter who stole hundreds of artworks across Europe, a feat an expert said probably made him one of the most successful art thieves around.

The court in the eastern French city of Strasbourg also ordered that Stephane Breitwieser, 33, pay damages. His lawyer said he did not plan an appeal.

Breitwieser was in court although prison officials said he had been stopped from hanging himself in jail Thursday night when his cellmate raised the alarm.

His mother, Mireille, who told the court she took a hammer to stolen paintings and other works worth millions of dollars to cover her son’s tracks after his 2001 arrest in Switzerland, was sentenced to 18 months in jail with an additional 18-month term suspended.

Her lawyer called the sentence severe and said they would study an appeal.

The prosecutor, Manon Brignol, decried her destruction as scandalous.

‘Unpardonable’
As for Breitwieser, the prosecutor said, “Appropriating works of art in an egotistical and narcissistic manner is unpardonable.”

Breitwieser’s former girlfriend, Anne-Catherine Kleinklauss, who acted as a lookout while he stole, was given six months in jail plus a suspended term of a further 12 months.

Breitwieser, who acknowledged stealing 239 pieces of art that French police valued at $14 million to $20 million, had earlier tearfully pleaded for leniency for his mother.

“It won’t happen again. I feel guilty for my mother. If you send her to prison, you will kill her,” he said. “I apologize for everything. I’ll compensate the victims.”

Prosecutors said his mother chopped up paintings and tossed treasures into a canal, where 102 pieces — watches, cups, vases, statues and others — were recovered from the mud and restored. Many other works, however, are believed lost forever.

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

“He was probably one of the most consistently successful art thieves in existence,” she said in a telephone interview.

During his seven-year spree, Breitwieser spirited paintings, statuettes, silver, goblets, dishes and other pieces from small museums with weak security. He smuggled some out in his rucksack or beneath his coat and threw others out windows.

Breitwieser’s lawyer said he was motivated only by passion for art and never tried to sell his haul. But the prosecutor cast doubt on that account, saying numerous paintings disappeared and unexplained money showed up in Breitwieser’s bank account.

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.

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

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