Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures
By Robert K. Wittman with John Shiffman
In the public eye, art theft is a glamorous crime. It is the stuff of movies and our conception of it is blurred by our cinematographic vision, one in which well-dressed gentlemen stroll into museums and devise complicated plans to steal the world’s treasures. We gasp and follow along enthralled as we watch the mystery unravel, all the while comfortable with our fascination because we perceive it as a non-violent crime. In Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures by Robert K. Wittman with John Shiffman, the authors make clear that while there are movie-like art heists, as a whole, the public is rather misinformed about art crime.
In 1988, Robert Wittman fulfilled what had been a dream of his since childhood—he was officially inducted into the F.B.I. He was assigned to the Philadelphia bureau, and though he was initially disappointed with the locale, the assignment turned out to be fortuitous. Within the first month of Wittman’s F.B.I. service the city’s Rodin Museum was robbed. Under the tutelage of Bob Bazin, a veteran F.B.I. agent with a penchant for solving art crime, Wittman worked on the case, piquing what would became a longstanding interest in a field that at the time he knew little about.
Priceless tells the story of Wittman’s experience as an F.B.I. agent, and his role as the founder—and only undercover agent—of the F.B.I.’s art crime team. Moving rather deftly between stories of Wittman’s art crime cases, bits of art history, and various moments of personal memoir, the narrative progresses smoothly, if at times overdramatically. Throughout the book Wittman provides short lessons on the pieces that he works to recover throughout the book, and rather sweetly conveys his fascination with the incredible history of each masterwork. His narrative takes readers behind the closed doors of museums around the world, and, where possible, delves into the complicated inner workings of the Bureau. Infused with an air of suspense, a lament for the F.B.I.’s unwillingness to dedicate a strong force to the art crime team, and a fair amount of self-bravado, the book is perfect for the reader who is peripherally interested in art, and compelled by the life of an F.B.I. agent.
Wittman, though, is first and foremost not a writer but a retired agent, and the book’s tone varies between that of a buddy, buddy F.B.I. for Dummies instruction manual and that of Dan Brown novel. While discussing the travails of going undercover, Wittman explains the psychological trauma: “It’s kind of weird. Sometimes when I’ve slipped into a role I really don’t want it to end…Almost everyone experiences this letdown. It’s normal to feel a sense of loss. After working so hard to ingratiate yourself with a target, thinking about a case day and night for weeks and months, it’s only natural to miss that high, to even feel a bit depressed.” And once he explains how he feels—how you might feel—he cuts to the action. “I thought about that all as we moved to snap the trap shut on Baer with one final, orchestrated maneuver. His karma was about to take a turn for the worse.”
Luckily, what Wittman lacks in style, he compensates for in content. For those who are looking for a primer in art crime, Priceless serves as a very accessible entry point into the field. More importantly, Wittman’s book is a call to action. According to Wittman, of the eight art crime team members he trained in 2005, by 2008 nearly all of them had moved to other departments. Art and antiquity crime ranks fourth in transnational crime and more significantly deals with an irreplaceable commodity. Throughout the book, Wittman chastises the F.B.I. for its red tape and bureaucracy and for its unwillingness to put money into staffing a serious art crime team. While working on one of the most significant art heists in recent history, Wittman is thwarted by controlling managers: “Wonderful, I thought. Bureacracies and turf fighting on both sides of the Atlantic had destroyed the best chance in a decade to rescue the Gardner paintings…Our failure convinced me that the F.B.I. was no longer the can-do agency it was when I joined in 1988.”
Though the passages where Wittman complains about the F.B.I. are peppered throughout the book a bit too generously, the point he is making is certainly significant. While garnering support to stop drug trafficking or to prevent terrorism is not difficult, finding resources to solve art and antiquities theft is not as simple. For all of its stylistic flaws, Priceless is nonetheless an important reminder that without dedicated forces of people working to prevent and solve art crime, our world’s greatest living pieces of history are at stake.
ABBY MARGULIES is a freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn.