ON THE surface, The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime and a Dangerous Obsession by Michael Finkel and Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon by Michael Lewis are two books about thieves who don’t have much in common.
But digging deeper, the stories of an art thief and cryptocurrency swindler share personal and “professional” traits that define an ever-shifting landscape of crime perpetrated by unimaginable miscreants. Ironically, they also became billionaires who didn’t care about money.
You don’t have to be an art collector or an investor to appreciate these stories as cautionary tales. It pays to understand how such devious minds work.
The Art Thief tells the story of Stéphane Breitwieser, a French man who travelled around Europe stealing artwork from museums and churches in broad daylight. With the skill of a magician, he smuggled artwork past security. There’s a lesson about poor security here too.
I was initially drawn to this book because of Breitwieser’s first crime in The Rubenshuis, the former home and workshop of Medieval Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens in Antwerp, Belgium.
The museum is a block from where my daughter, Ijanaya, lives. I have visited that museum and so I couldn’t figure out how it was possible to steal from there. (One of the benefits of reading is that you are bound to stumble on a book that captures a place you are familiar with.)
In total, Breitwieser and his girlfriend stole over 200 pieces of art, which he put in his attic bedroom at his mother’s house. He never tried to sell the stolen pieces. He was boldfaced enough to have some of them framed since he had cut them out of their museum frames.
Breitwieser said he just wanted to “enjoy” art. He considered himself “an art liberator” – not a thief. (That is too contrived for me to explain.)
The more he gets away with stealing, the more audacious Breitwieser becomes. His strange girlfriend, who works in a hospital (one of them had to work) provides no moral compass. Most of the time, she places few if any restrictions on him and then backs down when Breitwieser challenges her feeble demands. She forbade him from stealing in Switzerland after he was caught stealing, but managed to weasel his way out of trouble.
(One could read this book just as a lesson about toxic relationships or poor parenting skills. Breitwieser’s mother is emotionally volatile, controlling and over-indulging, which doesn’t help his impulsive or compulsive behaviour).
Breitwieser never faces any multi-life sentences as did Sam Bankman-Fried, the subject of Michael Lewis’s new book. This speaks volumes about how we view aesthetics vs money. Bankman-Fried becomes a self-made billionaire from cryptocurrency trading. He was on the fast track to becoming the world’s first trillionaire with his companies FTX Trading and Alameda Research. Famous people gave Bankman-Fried piles of money without knowing anything about him.
Strangely enough, Bankman-Fried showed no interest in money as he established himself as a weird cryptocurrency trader. His pleasure came from understanding and predicting odds. Like Breitwieser, he was anti-social, reclusive and non-communicative. Yet they were magnets attracting support for their shady dealings. (Bankman-Fried’s staff turned against him in his trial).
For a time, Bankman-Fried got lumped in with the “effective altruists,” who earn money merely to spend it on projects they feel will save the world. He got involved in politics, supporting candidates he felt would save the planet. But he violated US Federal exchange laws, used Alameda Research to bankroll FTX Trading and got charged with a heap of crimes including mail fraud and money laundering.
Now he faces over 100 years in prison, a predictable sentence. Cryptocurrency challenges traditional banking, so it’s no surprise the establishment would make an example of a nefarious character like Bankman-Friend.
Both books make brilliant reading about psychological deviance. The more we know about such people, the better we should be able to protect ourselves from scams.
Undoubtedly, Breitwieser and Bankman-Fried were narcissistic geniuses. They lacked empathy, were obsessed with self-gratification and had parents incapable of setting boundaries or imparting any moral advice.
These books demonstrate the danger of being an over-indulgent parent. Both books offer lessons about setting boundaries and requiring honesty, empathy and ethical behaviour in children.
Your children might not turn out to be the most infamous art thief or cryptocurrency thief, but they can do a lot of damage to innocent people.
Ask your favourite bookstore to order these two books. Read them back to back.