BOOKS: Art Detective, Robert K. Wittman’s Memoir

Priceless -NY Times Best SellerPriceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures

By Robert K. Wittman, John Shiffman

Broadway Books, New York, 2010


Famous art detective Robert K Wittman’s memoir, traces his 20 years as an FBI special agent in a series of cinematic vignettes, historical essays, art appreciation lessons, charming factoids, and various spy tips. One could be put off by Wittman’s frequent, eye-roll-inducing humble-brags (“How, I wondered, did the son of a Baltimore orphan and a Japanese clerk wind up here, as his country’s top art crime sleuth?”) but that would be to miss out on a breezily informative, and frankly adventuresome read.


The book is co-written with John Shiffman, an award winning investigative reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer and a lawyer, to whom the book likely owes the vivid film noir quality of passages like this one:


“THE PLATINUM ROLLS-ROYCE WITH BULLETPROOF windows glided east onto the Palmetto Expressway toward Miami Beach, six stolen paintings stashed in its armor-plated trunk. Great works by Degas, Dalí, Klimt, O’Keeffe, Soutine, and Chagall were piled rudely in the rear, wrapped individually in thin brown paper and clear packing tape. In the driver’s seat, a Parisian millionaire named Laurenz Cogniat pushed the three-ton beast hard. He entered the left lane approaching eighty, then ninety miles an hour, the vehicle’s menacing stainless-steel grille leading the way.”


Priceless slides easily from these Chandleresque adventures, to in-depth essays about artists like Rodin and Picasso, through fantastic tales of heists and hidden treasure, and deep into evocative stories behind artifacts like the Civil War “blood cloth” carried into battle by an African-American soldier,  seventy-eight year old Geronimo’s war bonnet donned for an Oklahoma carnival, and a Peruvian warrior’s gold body armor stashed in the trunk of a car.

It also touches upon the less glamorous aspects of under cover work: the death of a partner, the drive to return home to family, blunders and airless hotels, and office politics.


It is the office politics that supply the tragedy in Wittman’s tale.


A pioneer in what is currently a slowly developing and much hindered cultural heritage protection movement, Wittman found his calling in 1995 when, inspired by the cases he worked with the art-loving agent Bob Bazin, he decided to dedicate himself to the investigation and retrieval of stolen (and misappropriated) art. This led, eventually, to the founding in 2004 of the first FBI Art Crime Team, of which Wittman acted as senior investigator for a number of years.


But before Wittman’s Art Crime Team, the FBI — which, Wittman notes, is “more comfortable chasing kilos of cocaine than a bunch of fancy paintings”— had no unit especially dedicated to retrieving stolen art. In fact, art theft was not even a federal crime before 1995, before which date, it was regarded, and investigated as simple property theft.


What is more the FBI had their ways of working, and, as with any bureaucracy, they were attached to them. Wittman and his newly formed team had to struggle for resources and recognition, and the memoir is virtually punctuated with kvetches about working in a culture that prized arrests over retrieving what Wittman calls “stolen pieces of history and culture.”


“Those who loot and illegally sell antiquities rob us all,” he explains. “Once an antiquity is looted, the archaeologist loses the chance to study a piece in context.”


Before and during Wittman’s tenure, art crime was on the rise, and it still is. There is much lamenting of that in the book where one gets a picture of Wittman’s enthusiastic dedication to an area of endeavor that is largely misunderstood, underestimated and neglected.


While the current art bubble shows no clear signs of immanent burst, art crime, which grows as prices rise and as supplies of old masters dwindle, can only be expected to increase — a real shame since Wittman’s memoir ends with the Art Crime Team disintegrating. With Wittman, the sole art crime undercover agent, now retired, the team managed by an archeologist who is not a trained FBI agent, and a large turnover of members, the Art Crime Team seems to be all but erased and what should have been a milestone in cultural history may just be the end of a chapter in an entertaining book.



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