You may have read the New York Times article on Robert Wittman and his book entitled Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures. The book was released at the end of May and skyrocketed to number one on the best-selling charts. Though I have yet to read the book, I did have the opportunity to hear Mr Wittman discuss a little about its contents–his experience recovering stolen art for the FBI–during an evening talk at the Barnes Foundation.
Mr Wittman always had an interest in art, once a student of the Barnes, so it was only logical that he would gravitate in the direction of art theft while working for the FBI. His training had given him an eye for master paintings and he could easily spot a valuable painting out of a group of fakes. This talent is so impressive to me because, even after 8 years of studying art, and with the general ability to name an artist to an object, I honestly don’t think I could decide on the spot whether or not a painting is authentic…especially when there are foreign mobsters breathing down my neck.
According to Robert Wittman, 90% of art thefts are ‘inside’ jobs, accomplished by staff members, researchers, connoisseurs, etc. of the museum or private collection! I can’t even imagine the people I work with taking something from the museum because that, in turn, is like taking from the public. But even if someone successfully steals a work of art, what do they do with it? Mr Wittman talked on this topic for a while, mentioning that without a clear provenance, museums and collectors will not (should not) purchase a valuable piece of art. However, there are still black market dealers who buy up stolen goods at a fraction of their value…assuming the thief(s) are not caught. But with talented FBI agents on the prowl, the only reward criminals can expect is 5-10 years.
The FBI’s Art Crime Team was actually started by Mr Wittman, in 2004, and increased the number of art theft investigators from 3 to 13. The job requires a lot from these men and women: working a minimum of 5 years for the FBI, studying art, traveling around the world, dealing with dangerous criminals, and sometimes even getting arrested in other countries! It does sound exciting, though, especially the part about seeing and handling priceless works of art. Oh wait, I get to do that too. 😉 Robert Wittman’s story probably makes for a better book, though, and will definitely be a thriller when it comes out on film!