Saturday, March 12, 2011

Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures

by Robert K. Wittman with John Shiffman

New York, Crown Publishers, 2010

325 p. Memoir

I love heist movies—The Thomas Crown Affair and The Italian Job are two of my favorites. Any of the stories told in the book Priceless by Robert K. Wittman could be made into the next heist movie. Most certainly there will be a movie made about Wittman’s career as the FBI investigator who recovered some of the world’s priceless stolen treasures.

Robert K. Wittman is a charming, educated man. When he joined the FBI in his 30s, he had been running a small chain of farm newspapers in several states. He was used to being a salesman, being ingratiating, and smooth. He also was a musician and a student of art and antiques. He brought those skills into his FBI career and later into his career as an undercover agent, recapturing over $225 million dollars in lost artworks and historical artifacts. One reviewer says that “if Robert Wittman didn’t already exist, Dan Brown would have made him up.”

This is just a plain fun read. Each chapter tells about a heist and the subsequent recovery of the stolen items. Along the way, the reader learns about the history of the art or antiquity, so there’s a bit of learning that goes on as well. In each of these cases, Wittman had to learn as much as he could about the stolen items and design a plan to recover them. He had to create a cover for himself, ingratiate himself with the crooks and enact the recovery.

Wittman says, “Art thieves steal more than beautiful objects; they steal memories and identities. They steal history.” The FBI was never as passionate about recovering these beautiful objects as Wittman or the police in Europe are. For much of the time Wittman was in the FBI, he was the only person investigating the cases. And the other agents could never figure out why the recovery gained so much media attention. Just the week before Priceless was released, there was a robbery at the Paris Museum of Modern Art. Wittman, now retired, was one of the experts interviewed by all the news media. (Be sure to look at the news section of Wittman’s website to see him in action as the expert.) He retired from the FBI to run a security consulting business, and that’s why his story is being told now.

One of the ways he became successful in recapturing stolen pieces of art was by going undercover. He says, “Going undercover is a lot like sales. It’s all about understanding human nature—winning a person’s trust and then taking advantage of it. You befriend, then betray.” For several years, he went undercover to try to recover the paintings stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, which remains the largest property theft in history. Just before he retired, he believes that he came very close to recapturing the Vermeer painting, The Concert, but just couldn’t quite complete the deal. The reader feels as disappointed as Wittman, even thoughwe knew as we were reading about his efforts that those paintings remain out in the world somewhere.

I hadn’t expected to learn as much as I did. One reviewer said, “Priceless can read at times, not unpleasantly, as if an art history textbook got mixed up at the printer with a screenplay for The Wire.” And, oh my I did love The Wire! I do have to say that I was really disappointed to learn that Antiques Roadshow may not always be all it’s cracked up to be. “$2 million dollars. I can’t believe it—for this soup ladle? You’ve got to be kidding!”

Check out Wittman’s website, particularly the News section:

A review in the New York Times:

Terry Gross interview on Fresh Air:

1 comment:

What Book Today said...

I am going to order this right now. Great review! I am a huge true crime fan - do you read the yearly anthology Best American Crime Reporting?