Q&A with Robert K. Wittman, author of ‘Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures’

Robert Wittman is credited with founding the FBI’s first art crime team. He has been hailed as the “most famous art detective in the world,” by the London Times.

During his 20 years with the FBI, he recovered more than $225 million worth of art and historical artifacts from around the world. He worked undercover in dangerous stings when the situation called for it; always more focused on recovering the priceless piece than making an arrest.

In his memoir, Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures, written with Philadelphia Inquirer investigative reporter John Shiffman, Wittman shares his adventures as he traveled the globe recovering some pretty impressive treasures, including an original copy of the Bill of Rights, classic Norman Rockwells, a Civil War battle flag, and paintings by Renoir and Rembrandt. 

In addition to giving readers a behind-the-scenes look at an undercover agent working in the world of art crime, he offers an interesting tale of his own personal life and how he ended up in this unusual line of work. Like any good story, his is full of intrigue and not without its share of tragedy and twists.

Wittman answers questions on his book, the FBI, working as an undercover art crime investigator, his personal life, movie deal, his future and more.

Why did you decide to write this book?

Wittman:  I just had to write the book to get the word out to the public about the importance of protecting and saving cultural property. When I say cultural property, I mean fine art, but also historical items, pre-Columbian items. These things are important to the history of the world.

In the beginning of your book you wrote, “Art thieves steal more than beautiful objects; they steal memories and identities. They steal history.” Can you expand on your thoughts on that a little bit?

Wittman:  “Right. When a thief comes in and steals a Chevrolet, that doesn’t have as much impact as when someone steals a Monet. The Chevrolet could be easily replaced, because it’s not unique. Paintings are unique.  Each time one goes missing and it’s not recovered, it’s a real loss for the whole world.  I don’t think that a painting in a museum is owned by a specific museum.  I think it’s owned by all the people. We have the ability to study these things. That’s really important because our parents and grandparents maintained these pieces for us to enjoy, so we need to do that for our children.

Do you think that the U.S. government takes art crime more seriously now than when you founded the FBI’s art crime team?

Wittman:  We started the team in 2005 and at that time we had eight agents.  It was a brand new operation in the United States.  We never had a team before that was dedicated, and received training in art crime investigation. Up until then, it was just specific agents who were interested in it, just as a personal interest. This team that we put together has been very successful.  I think in the last five years, the team has recovered more than $140 million worth of art and artifacts, and more than 2,000 items. It’s been a great team, which is a very great legacy to leave behind. Do I think it’s different? I think there’s more interest.  I think that the FBI realizes that there’s a real public relations interest involved in these types of cases. But, I think that it’s not looked upon as a major priority in the FBI.

Is there still a dedicated team in place right now?

Wittman:  Well, the team is a part-time team. There are no full-time agents on the art crime team. It’s a part-time assignment; what we call collateral duty. The agents do other investigations, but they’ve had training at least once a year in different types of forensic techniques to do art theft investigations. The problem is that an art theft investigation is a lot different from say, a car theft, or a bank robbery. There are different sensibilities when you work with art. You can’t just do what you normally would do in those types of property thefts.

Which piece of stolen art are you most proud of recovering?

Wittman:  (chuckles) That’s a cool question. Everybody asks me that, and every one of them is great. Every time that I was involved in a case where I recovered a piece of art, I thought that was the neatest piece at the time. Looking back, I think every one is special for a specific reason. The Rembrandt that we got back is probably the most valuable piece, as far as dollars are concerned, at $36 million. That was the one that was stolen from the Swedish National Museum in Stockholm.  That was recovered in an undercover operation in Copenhagen.

Less of a dollar value was a Civil War battle flag that was carried into war by the 12th Regiment, Corps d’Afrique, which was one of the first African-American regiments in the United States.  That flag was carried at the Battle of Port Hudson, where five people were shot out from under it as they carried it. I think I was trying to buy that piece undercover for about $30,000. Compared to the $36 million dollar Rembrandt, it doesn’t compare financially. However, culturally and of importance for the nation, I think that flag is just as important. That’s really the lesson–the dollar amounts are not indicative of the importance of the artifacts. It’s the history, the provenance that these things impart to us.

What reactions to your book have you received from people that you used to work with in the FBI?

Wittman:  The street agents I’ve talked to have been absolutely thrilled with it. Many of them have bought copies and multiple copies for their families. I’ve had great reactions from the guys I worked with.

Are you concerned that this book might act as a guide to potential art thieves on what not to do to avoid getting caught?

Wittman:  Absolutely not. I think that books like this one and Jack Garcia’s book, Making Jack Falcone, serve as great deterrents for criminals. In reading a book like this, a criminal’s going to see that these FBI guys can be anywhere, doing anything. The fact is that they’ll never know who they’re dealing with, which means, maybe they won’t do the crime.

 I recently read former FBI director Louis Freeh’s book, My FBI, and you mentioned him a few times in your book, especially noting the recovery of the 12th Regiment flag that you just talked about. You noted how it made him and the bureau look good in the media.  What was your experience with him?  Did he support art theft investigations?

Wittman:  Yeah. You know the thing is with the upper management in Washington, it wasn’t so much that they supported it, as much as they didn’t not support it. We kind of flew under the radar for many years, and were able to do the cases.  They didn’t stop me from working the cases, which is great. Now when you say supported…  Did they give us many agents? Did they give us operational support financially? Did they do all that? No. No. Not at all. But they didn’t stop us from working the cases, put it that way.  When they got the good publicity, they enjoyed that.  It came at a time when the FBI was in need of good publicity, during the late 90’s, while certain things were going on around the country.

What did you like most about working under cover, and what did you like least?

Wittman:  I think the thing I liked most about working undercover was probably the ability to recover the artifacts. The funny thing is, there are people who work in law enforcement that like being undercover. That’s kind of what they do. They think of themselves as undercover agents, and undercover police officers.  That becomes the role that they take. I never thought of myself like that. The only way I could recover these paintings or solve these cases was to do that kind of work. In many of the cases, some cases in my book – say the Antiques Roadshow case, and a few others – I wasn’t undercover. In the Historical Society of Pennsylvania case, where we recovered all the guns and swords, I didn’t work that case undercover. Not at all. I didn’t have to. So I didn’t do it. It wasn’t that I loved working undercover, it’s just that’s the only way I knew to solve certain cases.

As far as what I didn’t like about it, I didn’t like having to be away from my family. I never liked lying to people. I don’t enjoy that. I never like ingratiating people falsely. It just goes against my grain. But it’s something you have to do in order to solve the case sometimes.

You wrote about how agents either have the innate ability to build rapport and “befriend and betray” or they don’t. Was that ever difficult? Did you ever feel like you got too close to someone and felt bad about betraying them?

Wittman:  I think that if you’re a human being and you work cases for long periods of time–many times these cases are not done in one, two days; we’re talking six months, a year, of working with people– you always have to identify good traits in people. If you find those good traits, you identify with them. If you don’t have some feelings of regret, for lying and betraying people, then I think you’re in the wrong business. I absolutely had those feelings at times, and I never tried to embarrass or downplay anyone’s personal or self-worth when we did these cases. I wasn’t one of those guys who was interested in being there when they did the bust, or so to speak, to gloat. I don’t do that. I think it’s a sad situation when people get in trouble.

Was it hard being undercover and staying out of the way of the cameras when they had the press conferences, and not getting the recognition for the big finds?

Wittman:  Oh, no. I never cared about the recognition for the recoveries. That was my job. What I cared about was getting the art back.  I was perfectly happy to give the work back. If a press conference occurred and the bosses were happy because of the good publicity for the bureau, hey, that allowed me to do the next case. That’s how I saw it. So I was more than happy to stay in the background and get ready to work on the next case.

What do you think are the biggest misconceptions the public holds of the art crime world?

 Wittman:  I think that one of the biggest misconceptions is the public thinks art crimes, art thieves, are sexy. They see these movies and they think of these movie stars like Sean Connery in Entrapment and Pierce Brosnan in The Thomas Crown Affair. They think these guys are intelligent, sexy, and handsome.

The truth is that art thieves are simply criminals. Ninety-five percent of the time that I was involved in cases–and remember, I worked in 21 different countries working these cases, and in the book I talk about maybe 12, but there were more than 50 that we did–these guys were just simply criminals who were involved in many different types of criminal activity including drugs, guns, money laundering, all that.  Art crime is just one more thing they happen to do. It was kind of a gateway crime in some of these cases.  We were able to catch these guys and the art theft convictions took them off the streets, although they had done many other things as well.

I can’t believe that the Osirus Statue was being sold on South Street in Philadelphia. Do you have any idea why “Larry” would have given “Al the Trash Picker” this statue?

Wittman:  I think he was just getting rid of it. He thought it was some kind of counterfeit prop or something. And I don’t think he had any clue what it was, because it doesn’t make sense if he was trying to do anything nefarious, why would he give it to a trash picker? He was just cleaning out.

I agree with you that art is priceless, but why do you think historic pieces often spend so much time inaccessible in a storage room, like in the Historic Society of Pennsylvania case for example?

Wittman:  It’s not just there. If you go to the Smithsonian, the National Archives, etc., there are many, many, many pieces in storage.  Only about five percent of what the museums actually have is on display. At any given time, there are many, many pieces that are in storage, and that’s because that’s where they need to be, in their proper storage and being cared for. There’s only so much space, so much gallery exhibit space, that’s out there. That’s why it’s put away. I’d rather have it stored and protected in an environmentally and acclimatized atmosphere, than be destroyed in some thief’s basement.

What do you think makes something a world treasure?

Wittman:  I think the history, the cultural significance, the knowledge about a piece, make it a world treasure. It could be anything from an Iraqi cylinder seal that’s 5,000 years old, that’s tiny, only an inch across, but the fact that it was dug in a specific area which gave information about civilization that controlled it, to a Rembrandt masterpiece.  I think both are world treasures, and need to be protected, because of what they mean to civilization and society in general.

In your book you said the real art in art crime is the selling, not the stealing. Why do you think thieves target such famous artwork when it seems that they’re nearly impossible to sell?

Wittman:  They don’t realize it at the time. The other thing I say, is that most of these thieves are very good criminals but terrible businessmen. At the time they’re stealing them, they don’t realize how hard they are to sell. They see the glamour of stealing a Picasso when they read the paper and see that a Picasso just broke the world record at auction and sold for $104 million. They think “Well, if we go to a museum and steal one, we can get $104 million.” They’re not really thinking it out. They’re good at getting the product, but they don’t know what to do with it.

After your personal court ordeal and DUI manslaughter acquittal you remarked that “innocence is innocence” and you had a newfound understanding for what it’s like to be accused. How did that perspective influence your work over the years?

Wittman:  I made sure that anyone I was interested in, or anyone we could prove a case against, as far as I was concerned, they did whatever it is I say they did. And if there was any doubt, I just wasn’t interested in doing the investigation. I never investigated or conducted investigations to try to catch a criminal; I tried to prove a case. And many times, there were cases where I found out the person didn’t do what they were said to have done, so no case was brought. It’s not about convicting people, it’s about proving cases and conducting the investigation to see what did happen.  And if you conduct the investigation, and you find that the elements of a crime were committed then you have a case. If not, you don’t have one. That’s okay too. You conducted the investigation in a good faith manner.

How has knowing or not knowing foreign languages affected your ability to recover art around the world?

Wittman:  I don’t think it affected my ability at all. In the cases where the criminals didn’t speak English, I could use an interpreter and it made sense. Many times that interpreter was another police officer, which was great to have with me. I remember one case where we were actually translating an investigation from French to Spanish to English. So we had two interpreters in the room. The bad guy was speaking French, and I had an interpreter–it was Spain, so I had a Spanish police officer who was interpreting the Spanish to French, from French to Spanish to English for me. So it worked out fine. The art world is such a global industry that it makes perfect sense to have different people who speak different languages involved.

What happens to art that is recovered after its rightful owner has died? How is that handled?

Wittman:  What happens to art when it’s recovered after its rightful owner has died? Does that mean that there’s no inheritance, does that mean it’s a private company or person?

If there’s no clear place for it to go.

Wittman:  I’ve never actually had that happen to me. If a painting is stolen, and I’ve had paintings stolen from the 70s and recovered in the 2000s. There’s going to be a police report where the piece was actually taken from. Let’s say the person who filed the report no longer exists, well then there’s an insurance company that probably paid off on it, and the insurance company is the one who would probably own it. Now, if a piece was stolen and there’s no insurance company, then you look for an heir – the son, the daughter, someone in the family that would be the next person that was involved in the estate. And I’ve never actually been in a position where a piece was recovered and no one existed at all. I don’t know what would happen. Maybe it would get forfeited and be sold by the government or something.

Who’s your favorite artist, and what’s your favorite piece of art?

Wittman:  I do have a favorite piece of art, but many pieces are favorites depending on the artists themselves. I love the Degas Dancers, of the ballet dancers. It sounds kind of cliché, doesn’t it? But I do love them. There’s specific artwork in the Barnes Foundation, it’s the Mussel Gatherers, which is a family that is gathering mussels on the shore of a cliff in the south of France, and it’s just gorgeous. I mean, it’s a beautiful Renoir painting. As far as favorite painters themselves, or favorite artists… I like different things from all different ones. I like some Picasso work. I like Degas. I like all these different painters.

Where was the photo on your book’s cover taken?

Wittman:  That’s a neat piece. It was taken by a photographer named Chris Crisman, who’s very talented. In August of 2008, before I retired, the Wall Street Journal did a feature on me and they sent the photographer down and that’s a shot he took for that article. That was taken at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and I’m looking into the Eglin Gallery. I was trying to hide my identity at the time because I was still working, so that’s why I wore the white hat.

If you look down in the right hand corner of my website (robertwittmaninc.com), there’s another shot there, that’s the Cezanne Bathers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s kind of a bluish shot and that was used for a cigar aficionado article. They did a big feature in there and they used that one. That’s also a Chris Crisman picture that he took the same day. He does nice work.

What are your thoughts on the May theft of five masterpieces, including a Matisse and a Picasso in Paris? I recently read in an ABC News article that if they’re not recovered within three months, it will probably take decades.

Wittman:  I don’t know about that. I think that those are pretty high-profile and there’s a lot of effort right now being put forth by law enforcement agencies in Paris. I think that they were taken for a reason. There’s a trial coming up in September for a number of individuals who were involved in a big heist of two Picassos taken from his granddaughter’s apartment and I think that these were taken as a negotiating tool, possibly to try and get lesser sentences for those guys when they get convicted or to even, maybe have the charges dropped. I think they’re just different parts of the same gang.

How do you feel about your book being made into a movie, and how will you be involved in the process?

Wittman:  (laughs) you know what? That’s really an interesting thing. I’m finding out there’s really not a lot of input. They buy the book, and basically they do what they want. You can kind of tell them what you don’t want them to do, but you can’t tell them what you do want them to do. So I will be consulting on it and I think it’s going to be exciting and I think it’s going to be a lot of fun and I hope they do a great job. But I learned a long time ago, I’m good at what I do, which is chasing art work and doing museum site security surveys and working with collectors and whatnot. I’m not a Hollywood producer. So I will let people who do that job for a living take care of it.

What are your favorite art crime movies, if you have any?

Wittman:  My favorite art crime movies? I don’t think I have a favorite art crime movie, because I know that they’re so silly. I like Ocean’s Eleven. I like those movies. I thought they were cute. I mean they were robbing a casino, but they’re stealing some stuff.

So now you’re doing art security consulting work? Can you tell me a little more about what you’re doing?

Wittman:  I’ve got a company; it’s called Robert Wittman Incorporated. (laughing) It’s real original, huh?

We do museum site security surveys, working with some museums to install and create security systems. We do transport; working with collectors and museums and security for transport of paintings to different exhibitions. I work with insurance companies as well to recover stolen art, so I’m actually still doing art recovery work. I was just in Romania looking for a stolen Chagall. We still do that, as well as legal expert testimony and investigations into good practices for art businesses.  A little bit of anything you need for the art business world.

Last question–Do you still have your eye on the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist?

Wittman:  (laughing) Do I still have my eye on the Gardner heist? I watch all the time to see if they recovered them. One of the best things I can imagine for the art world is if we can get those paintings back. And yeah, I would love to see them recovered. I think it would be a wonderful thing.

Anything else you would like to add?

Wittman:  I think that the Philadelphia division of the FBI is probably the leader in the country in supporting these types of operations – these art crime investigations. I was very proud to have worked there for 20 years. They did a great job.

 

MORE INFO ON WITTMAN, ‘PRICELESS’ & ART CRIME:

Robertwittmaninc.com

Details on the ‘Priceless’ movie deal

FBI’s Top 10 Art Crimes