Like most people who appreciate great art, Robert Wittman likes to visit museums. But unlike most art aficionados who stroll through museum galleries, Wittman often finds himself thinking more about the security of the paintings on the walls and the antiquities in glass cases than about the art itself.
This former FBI special agent is an unusual combination of tough guy and aesthete. In his recently published book, “Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures,” co-written with journalist John Shiffman, Wittman reveals one page-turning story after another of how he recovered some $225 million in stolen art and cultural property during his 20 years with the bureau. Wittman will make two area author appearances this month: On Sunday, September 19, he will give an illustrated lecture at the Michener Museum in Doylestown, PA; on Wednesday, September 22, he brings his talk to the Princeton Public Library.
“I do get to the Met, the Smithsonian, the Getty in Los Angeles, and the Philadelphia Art Museum, and I don’t worry at those places because I know they have good security,” says the 54-year-old Wittman, who lives outside of Philadelphia. “It’s the smaller ones that I worry about. I look around, and I see the vulnerabilities. The economic downturn has affected their ability to protect themselves because security is always the first thing to go.”
Since retiring from the FBI in 2008, Wittman has led his own private consulting firm. Robert Wittman Inc. provides security, protection, and recovery of art investments. In the business with him are his wife, Donna, and their two sons, Jeffrey and Kevin, who are 23 and 25. The Wittmans also have a daughter, Kristin, who is a freshman at the University of Delaware. “She’s taking a museum course,” says her proud father.
Wittman’s FBI career as an art theft specialist was launched when he and his partner recovered Rodin’s “Mask of the Man with the Broken Nose,” taken from Philadelphia’s Rodin Museum in 1988. The list of art and antiquities he has restored to rightful owners since then is jaw-dropping: one of the original 14 copies of the Bill of Rights stolen by a Union soldier in 1865, valued at $30 million; Rembrandt’s 1630 “Self-Portrait,” valued at $36 million; Native American Apache medicine man Geronimo’s eagle feather war bonnet, valued at $1.2 million; and five Norman Rockwell paintings worth $1 million, recovered from a farmhouse in Brazil. And those are only a few.
Art crime is a big, expensive problem, and it happens all over the world, says Wittman. Just last May, a thief stole a Picasso and four other paintings from a Paris museum. The biggest art heist in history took place in 1990, when thieves lifted $500 million worth of masterpieces by Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Degas from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. That case remains unsolved — though Wittman, during his FBI career, feels he came close.
Born in Tokyo to a Japanese mother and American father, Wittman moved to Baltimore with his family when he was a child. In the family’s postwar, working-class neighborhood, it wasn’t uncommon for Wittman’s mother to be the target of racial slurs. This overt racism made Wittman pay close attention, as he grew up, to the unfolding civil rights movement. In the newspapers and on television, the FBI always seemed to be involved.
“They protected victims of racism and prosecuted the bigots and the bullies,” he writes in his book. “I asked my mother about the FBI agents, and she said they sounded like honorable men. On Sunday nights in the late 1960s, my mom, dad, brother, and I gathered by our new color television to watch episodes of ‘The FBI.’ On TV the FBI always got its man, and the agents were noble protectors of the American way. I loved it. We rarely missed an episode.”
To add to the FBI’s allure, the family had a neighbor who was a special agent in the Baltimore division. Wittman hung out with the man’s sons and considered him “the coolest man I knew.” His own father tried a few different enterprises and ran unsuccessfully for city council before opening an antiques store specializing in Asian art.
Young Wittman was a serious piano student whose mother hoped he’d make a career as a professional musician. But he knew he wasn’t good enough. He also knew that what he really wanted was to be an FBI agent. It would take several years before Wittman would realize his dream. First, he and his brother joined their father in his new business, a monthly agricultural newspaper called the Maryland Farmer. Though they knew nothing about journalism, selling advertising, or farming, they learned on the job, and the paper did well. Wittman stayed with it until he was 32, when he finally took the FBI aptitude test, passed, and joined the bureau.
He was posted to Philadelphia. The city was home to two great art museums and one of the country’s largest archaeology collections. In the same month in 1988 that Wittman reported for duty, two of them — the Rodin Museum and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology — were robbed. Assigned with a partner to investigate, Wittman found himself calling not only on his knowledge of art learned from his parents and their antiques business, but on his experience at the newspaper as well.
“The newspaper gave me a background on how to do deals, and that was important in dealing with these criminals,” he says. “Being involved in sales as part of the newspaper business, going out and starting a business and doing the public relations is all a form of ingratiating yourself. I think it wasn’t so much my knowing some art history as how to do a deal.”
After recovering the stolen Rodin mask, Wittman and his partner tracked down a 50-pound crystal ball originally from the Forbidden City in Beijing missing from the University of Pennsylvania museum. It was sitting, topped with a baseball cap, in the bedroom of an innocent housekeeper in Trenton who had been given the object as a gift. She had no idea of its value.
Wittman soon realized that in art crime, he had a niche. He signed up for an art appreciation course at the prestigious Barnes Foundation outside Philadelphia, and he was bowled over by its 23 galleries and the distinctive way they are arranged. In later years, when he went on to found the FBI’s Art Crime Team, he brought the team members to the Barnes Foundation to give them background. “It’s an incredible collection that can’t be surpassed anywhere in the world,” he says. “The only museum with maybe one-tenth of what it has is the Orangerie in Paris. It’s a place you can go to teach your eye.”
Wittman went on to travel the world to rescue paintings and art objects. Closer to home, he even cracked a scam that rocked the PBS TV series “The Antiques Roadshow.” The thieves he caught ran from rich to poor, from a high-ranking diplomat to a sad-sack electrical contractor storing stolen Civil War swords and a rifle in a bedroom of his house.
The capers Wittman describes in “Priceless” repeatedly illustrate how hard it is for criminals to recoup money for their stolen goods. So why do they do it? “Art crime is rarely about the love of art. It’s about greed,” he says. “They don’t realize that you can’t turn it into cash. And the more famous the painting, the harder it is to sell. Sometimes they keep them and use them as a ‘get out of jail free’ card.”
While Wittman is respectful of the FBI in the book, he also gets across his view that the bureau doesn’t care enough for recovery of stolen art. Even though a whole team of agents was organized under his direction, it pales in comparison to the level of attention given to this problem in other countries.
“That’s part of the reason I got the idea to do the book as I was retiring,” he says. “I wanted the world to know that the FBI does this. I wanted to keep the art crime team going. And I wanted to do the type of art book that would cross over and educate the general market. So, there is my personal story, there are the actual cases, and there is a third story level, which is the art. I wrote the book so that the average person on the street can enjoy it and actually learn a little something about art.”
Author Event, Sunday, September 19, 3 to 5 p.m. Michener Art Museum, 138 South Pine Street, Doylestown; and Wednesday, September 22, 7:30 p.m., Princeton Public Library. Robert K. Wittman, author of “Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures,” presents an illustrated lecture about investigating and solving art and antiques crime. The son of antiques dealers, he spent 20 years as a special agent and recovered more than $225 million worth of art. The book is a memoir of Wittman’s high-stakes operations. Wine and cheese reception follows the lecture. Register. 215-340-9800 or www.michenerartmuseum.org ($20 members; $25 non-members) or www.princetonlibrary.org (free).