Catch an Art Thief
How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World·s Stolen
K. Wittman with John Shiffman
Publishers, 325 pages, $25
conventionallyenough, with undercover FBI agent Robert Wittman,
narrator of the book, being Rolls-whisked by mobsters to a
boat at a Miami dock, where he·s engineering a dangerous
double cross in order to get at a cache of stolen goods. The
stakes are high, the personal risk daunting. The chapter breaks
off at the climax. We won·t learn the resolution until
the final chapters.
this book departs from the standard true-crime saga is in
its subject matter: fine art. And not just that: It·s
Wittman·s contagious belief in the cultural value of
fine art that makes the book compelling. Co-written with Pulitzer
Prize finalist John Shiffman, a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter,
Priceless is Wittman·s story both of the high-stakes
pursuit of stolen treasures and his own eventful life.
of a mixed-race marriage, Wittman had a close-up view of intolerance
even as he watched the civil-rights confrontations of the
1960s unfold. His Japanese mother helped instill his love
of fine art; his Army vet father taught him resourcefulness
and determination. Impressed by a neighbor who worked for
the FBI, Wittman nourished a desire to join the bureau, but
he settled into a family business and didn·t pursue
that dream until he was 32.
posting, to Philadelphia, coincided with a robbery at that
city·s Rodin Museum, and rookie Wittman launched into
an investigation that would inspire not only a new attitude
at the agency, but also lead to the founding of the FBI·s
Art Crime Team.
himself gained significant training at the Barnes Foundation
in Philadelphia, a building designed by its wealthy benefactor
as an education center that immerses its students in art history.
·Study the overstuffed walls,· the book explains,
·and discover two chairs that match the female derriere
in a set of Renoirs, or an African mask that matches the shape
of a man·s face in a Picasso painting. Notice a wooden
trunk that mimics shapes in Prendergast and Gauguin paintings.
Ponder the significance of a set of soup ladles straddling
a series of Old Master paintings, or a pair of ox shoes hanging
over a pair of Soutines.·
In this way, the eye of the investigator·or collector,
dealer, or artist·is trained to contextualize a masterpiece
with greater skill. And it wasn·t just paintings Wittman
recovered. In 1997, working undercover, he went after a 1,700-year-old
South American ·backflap,· ·the backside
of an ancient Moche king·s body armor, an exquisite
piece hammered from gold,· stolen years before from
a Peruvian tomb.
Historical Society of Pennsylvania took its first inventory
in decades, a Revolutionary War-era rifle and three Civil
War presentation swords were discovered missing. This was
the case of an inside job, and the investigation was made
all the trickier because ·cultural institutions are
loathe to suspect one of their own; they like to think of
themselves as families.· But it led to a multimillion
dollar stash of 200 museum-worthy pieces in an electrician·s
frequently went undercover, spending months winning the trust
of the suspects he pursued, and the stories are rich with
the kind of tension-building detail you·d otherwise
assume only happens in fiction. One example is the sting he
set up to wrest an invaluable original copy of the Bill of
Rights from a Washington, D.C., lawyer, bringing to an end
a pursuit that began when the document, presented to the state
of North Carolina, was looted by members of Sherman·s
army during the Civil War.
are successful recoveries of other goods stolen long before,
such as the repatriation from Brazil of Norman Rockwell paintings
swiped from a Minneapolis gallery in 1978. Other international
trails include the track of Rembrandts and Renoirs nicked
from the Swedish National Museum in Stockholm. And we learn
of the deliberate scams that informed the early seasons of
the TV show Antiques Roadshow.
Not surprisingly, we·re also shown an FBI culture that
included the kind of politicking and backstabbing that informs
any bureaucracy, as (now-retired) agent Wittman was buffeted
among co-workers and bosses ranging from those sympathetic
to the need of protecting cultural artifacts to those desk-bound
buffoons who merely sought self-aggrandizement at the expense
most compelling aspect of this well-told saga is the excitingly
detailed skullduggery: the suspense of each investigative
chase and the eventual triumph (in most cases described) of
running the thieves to ground and restoring the swag to its
proper place, all burnished by the appreciation of fine art
as a necessity of a culture that seeks to grow and thrive.
When financial times are tough, the arts tend to take the
first and most brutal hits. Wittman·s story is a compelling
argument against that.