The Hunt for Stolen Art

Linda Wertheimer speaks with Robert Wittman, senior investigator of the FBI's new Art Crimes Unit, about searching for — and recovering — stolen art and artifacts around the globe.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Last month in a hotel room in Copenhagen, an Iraqi man sold an eight-by-four Rembrandt self-portrait for $250,000 in cash--or so he thought. Seconds later, Danish police charged into the room and arrested him. The painting had been stolen from the Swedish National Museum five years earlier, and the supposed buyer was actually the senior investigator of the FBI's recently created art crimes unit. His name is Robert Wittman, and he and his team have already recovered $40 million worth of stolen art and cultural property. Mr. Wittman joins us from New York.

Welcome.

Mr. ROBERT WITTMAN (FBI Art Crimes Unit): Thank you, Linda. It's nice to be here.

WERTHEIMER: Why did the FBI decide to create an art crimes unit? That's a relatively recent thing--What?--about eight or nine months?

Mr. WITTMAN: Right. The official title is actually the Rapid Deployment National Art Crime Team. And...

WERTHEIMER: Does it have good initials or something?

Mr. WITTMAN: Well, the ACT is what we use--ACT for Art Crime Team.

WERTHEIMER: OK.

Mr. WITTMAN: And what it's done--it's kind of focused the FBI on the regional prosecution of art crimes, and when we talk about art crimes, we mean art fraud, art forgery, fakes, stuff from galleries and museums, so it runs the whole gamut. There's estimates that the illicit cultural property industry worldwide runs between 4.5 and $6 billion a year, and so that makes it one of the top five monetary crimes in the world.

WERTHEIMER: One of the most recent, I guess, wholesale loss of cultural property was all of the looting that went on in Iraq. Does your brief extend to something like that?

Mr. WITTMAN: That's correct. Yes, it's one of the major focuses of the team. Estimates at this point are that, you know, looting in Iraq is totaling a dollar amount of over a hundred million dollars a year. It's not the dollar loss that is so important. It's the loss of cultural knowledge internationally. When these things are dug out of the ground by looters, whether it's Iraq or in, you know, South America or in Africa, we lose all the archaeological information of those cultures. So what happens is we lose our--the history of us humans, and that's what we're trying to stem.

WERTHEIMER: Now who are the people who steal art? Do they do it for the money or do they do it to possess the art, do you think?

Mr. WITTMAN: It could be anyone. We've seen people who are professors who stole artwork and collections just because they thought that they could care about them more than other people would. We've also seen a case where five individuals were just common basically killers, and they went out and did home invasion robberies of antique dealers, and they would go in TASER and tie up the people, pistol-whip them and steal their collections. They were just in it for the money.

WERTHEIMER: You know, our image of these kinds of crimes mostly comes from the movies, "Top Cathy,"(ph) "The Thomas Crown Affair," people who break in to places that have very elaborate security. Do you ever see any of those kind of movie-style art thefts?

Mr. WITTMAN: Very seldom. I mean, we see some clever techniques to gain entry sometimes. People dress up in different ways. At the Isabella Stewart-Gardner theft in Boston in 1990, the way they made egress into the museum was to dress up as Boston police officers. In the Rembrandt case that you spoke about from Copenhagen, the robbery occurred in 2000. Three individuals went into the museum, one was carrying a submachine gun, and it was about five minutes before closing. They went in, put the guards on the floor. Two of the three individuals ran around the museum stealing three paintings, two Renoir paintings and a Rembrandt, and they made their getaway on a motor boat they had parked in front of the museum to take off. So there was nothing subtle about the robbery.

WERTHEIMER: You've been quoted as saying that the real art in art theft is not the stealing of it, but the selling of it. Many of the things they're trying to sell are very famous. I mean, it's completely plain it's stolen property.

Mr. WITTMAN: When you steal something that's that famous--a Rembrandt or, say, "The Scream" in Oslo or da Vinci in Scotland, it's very difficult to find someone who's going to pay any kind of money for it, number one, because you cannot display it, you can't show it. Everyone knows it's stolen. There probably was a time maybe 50 years ago when police departments didn't speak to each other as quickly as they do now, but with the onset of the computer age, you know, all this artwork can be searched in a matter of seconds.

WERTHEIMER: There must be some stolen works of art that you dream of finding.

Mr. WITTMAN: Well, I would tell your listeners if they have any information on the Isabella Stewart-Gardner case we would be very interested. There's a published $5 million reward for information for that case. The paintings are unique. You know, they have worldwide interest in there. They're part of the cultural history and property of the entire world.

WERTHEIMER: To what extent to you rely on tips?

Mr. WITTMAN: Well, the audience and the, you know, general public are the eyes of law enforcement. You know, we can only do so much 'cause we're not out there everywhere. We have to have, you know, our friends in the public who come in and tell us when they see things.

WERTHEIMER: Robert Wittman is the senior investigator with the FBI's art crimes unit. He joined us from New York City.

Thanks very much.

Mr. WITTMAN: Thank you.

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