How to Catch an Art Thief

A former FBI agent takes readers along on the hunt for stolen masterpieces.

Robert Wittman often risked his life as the FBI's chief art hunter and undercover art agent.

Robert Wittman often risked his life as the FBI's chief art hunter and undercover art agent.


Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures
By Robert K. Wittman with John Shiffman
Crown, 230 pages, $25

You’re an undercover agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. To ingratiate yourself with and win the trust of two thugs, Sunny and Laurenz, you carry six forged paintings in Laurenz’s platinum Rolls Royce with bulletproof glass to the undercover FBI yacht, Stagehand. You cruise Miami harbor until late afternoon as stewards serve rare roast beef and magnums of Champagne while bikini-clad female undercover agents dance and eat strawberries. Meanwhile the captain is flipping on hidden surveillance cameras.

You sell the paintings to an agent posing as a Colombian drug dealer. He pays you $1.2 million with a bank wire transfer, a small pack of diamonds, and Krugerrands from the FBI vault. When you leave the boat, you toss a few gold coins to Laurenz and the diamonds to Sunny, who says, “Dinner’s on me.”

A scene from a James Bond movie starring Daniel Craig and Scarlett Johansson? No. It’s one of the fascinating stories in Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures, a memoir by Robert K. Wittman with John Shiffman. Wittman created the FBI’s art-crime team and is now a private art-recovery specialist. His book has the excitement of an espionage novel. It’s suspenseful, thought provoking, and funny.

Wittman, who was with the FBI for 20 years, often risked his life as the agency’s chief art hunter and only undercover art agent. Posing as a collector, philanthropist, professor, or broker (on the yacht he was a shady art dealer), he recovered more than $225 million worth of stolen art and antiquities, including works by Rembrandt, Bruegel, Rodin, and Norman Rockwell, as well as Geronimo’s headdress and an original copy of the Bill of Rights that had been lost for many years.

To help solve the theft of 18 paintings worth $50 million stolen from the home of a Spanish billionaire, he writes:

“I’d be entering another hotel room across town.
To meet a desperate, possibly homicidal gangster eager to close a $10 million deal.
Dangling a million euros cash as bait.
Working with an FBI partner in his first undercover case.
Negotiating in French, a language I didn’t understand.

The bait worked.

Art crime is on the rise, “easily outpacing efforts to police it,” Wittman writes. “The $6 billion a year figure is probably low because it includes statistics supplied by only a third of the 192 member countries of the United Nations. Art and antiquities theft ranks fourth in transnational crime, after drugs, money laundering, and illegal arms shipments.”

Hot art and antiquities “attract money launderers, crooked gallery owners and art brokers, drug dealers, shipping companies, unscrupulous collectors, and the occasional terrorist.”

Most stolen or looted art is quickly smuggled across borders to reach new markets, according to Wittman. Half of the art and antiquities recovered by law-enforcement agencies is recaptured outside the country in which the theft took place.

Not much is being done about policing art crime, he writes. The French national art-crime squad has 30 officers. Scotland Yard has 12 and has deputized art professors and archeologists, partnering them with detectives. Italy has the largest number of art and antiquities sleuths: 300.

In the United States, the Los Angeles Police Department is the only department with a full-time art-crime investigator. The FBI’s art-crime team, which Wittman created in 2005, still exists, he writes, but it is “managed by a trained archaeologist, not an FBI agent,” and turnover is rampant.

He is critical of the FBI’s “unusual pecking order and protocols,” as well as “turf wars and intra-agency rivalries on both sides of the Atlantic.” He quotes an FBI colleague as saying that “the major federal law-enforcement agencies—especially the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, and Immigration Customs Enforcement—almost always wrestled for control of joint investigations; the public would be surprised to learn how often different law-enforcement agencies hid things from one another, or tried to squeeze each other out.”

Sunny and Laurenz had ties to a criminal gang in Corsica and offered to sell Wittman some of the paintings stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990. Wittman claims his efforts were sabotaged by a superior, who tried to have him thrown off the case, which is still unsolved.

Wittman even has tips for people interested in becoming undercover sleuths. Describing a dangerous operation, he writes, “As I crossed into the middle of the lot, reaching a spot where the bad guys had no place to hide, I gave the go-sign—I brushed my backside with my left hand. (The go-sign should always be something you rarely do, so you don’t give it by mistake). Agents in raid jackets jumped out, guns drawn, shouting, ‘FBI! Let me see your hands! Down on your knees! FBI!'”

Milton Esterow is editor and publisher of ARTnews.

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