Missing 'Priceless' Artwork? Call Robert Wittman Wittman founded the FBI's Art Crime Team and has tracked down more than $225 million worth of stolen art and cultural property — including a $36 million self-portrait by Rembrandt. Wittman describes the heists in his new memoir, Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures.
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Missing 'Priceless' Artwork? Call Robert Wittman

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Missing 'Priceless' Artwork? Call Robert Wittman

Missing 'Priceless' Artwork? Call Robert Wittman

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in this week for Terry Gross.

Our guest, Robert Wittman, spent 20 years as an FBI agent. He did plenty of undercover work, wearing body wires and meeting criminals in hotel rooms with suitcases of cash. But Wittman wasn't usually buying drugs or guns in his sting operations. He was more often looking for a Rembrandt or a headdress worn by the Apache warrior Geronimo.

Wittman specialized in stolen art and antiquities, and his efforts were aimed as much at recovering the stolen treasure as catching the thieves. Wittman founded the FBI's art crime team, and by the bureau's accounting, he saved hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of art and antiquities.

He has a new memoir with writer John Shiffman called "Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures."

Well, Robert Wittman, welcome to FRESH AIR. I thought we'd begin by giving the audience a taste of what your life was like for years, working for the FBI on recovering stolen art and antiquities. And I thought maybe you'd tell us a bit about recovering a Rembrandt from a heist from a Swedish museum from a robbery that took place in 2000. It's such an interesting heist. Just tell us about the robbery itself first.

Mr. ROBERT WITTMAN (Co-author, "Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures"): Well, that was an interesting robbery. It occurred in December, late December of the year 2000, as you said. And what happened there, three individuals went into the Swedish National Museum in Stockholm.

They had machine guns. They put everybody on the floor, the guards, the few visitors that were there, and remember, it's late in December. It's around 5 o'clock. It's near Christmastime, very dark at that point in Sweden.

At the same time, their compatriots set off two car bombs on the two main roads leading to the museum, which is on a small peninsula right on the water. So there's really no way to get there except those two roads. The reason for that was to stop the police from responding quickly. So they had about 40 minutes before the police could get there.

So the car bombs go off, they put everybody on the floor, they continue at that point to run through the museum. They stole two Renoir paintings and a Rembrandt, and the Rembrandt was probably one of the finest pieces in the museum.

It's a self-portrait. It's done on copper, and it's the only one that was ever done by Rembrandt on copper. It was done in 1630, when Rembrandt was at the age of 24 years old. He actually used gold in the paint to make it iridescent, to make it luminescent, so it glows at you when you look at it. But they stole that piece, as well. The total value of that heist was $42 million.

At that point, then, they made their way out of the museum, and as I said, it's on a peninsula right on the water, in a harbor there in Stockholm. And they made their getaway in a high-speed boat.

DAVIES: Right, so the cops are all trying to get through this traffic jam caused by (unintelligible) cars, and away they get on the water.

Mr. WITTMAN: They sped away, absolutely. It was a very, very good, a good scripted robbery. But as I often say, you know, many times in these cases, the thieves are very good art thieves, but they're terrible businessmen because it took them five years to try to sell the paintings, and at no point did they ever make any money.

In the end, we ended up catching them, and it's because they were trying to sell the Renoir and the Rembrandt for very little money compared to what the value was.

DAVIES: Right, not easy to move a piece of art like that. Now, I wanted to also talk about the moment at which you catch these guys because you worked undercover, very often posing as a crooked art dealer or someone representing a crooked art dealer. You're the one that's going to give them a briefcase full of cash in return for the stolen art. And it often comes down, as it did in this case, in a hotel room. Tell us what happened.

Mr. WITTMAN: Yes, sometimes that's the way it works. Sometimes, wed work a cash-for-paintings deal. In this particular case, we developed an informant who was out in L.A., and we worked with the Los Angeles FBI, who did a great job on the case.

We ended up going to Stockholm and also to Copenhagen to work that case, and I was undercover at that point as an authenticator for an eastern European mob group.

After about two weeks of discussions with the thieves, who were still in Stockholm, and again, we were in Copenhagen, about a six-hour train ride away, we negotiated the point down to $250,000. And we actually had 250,000 in cash in the hotel room. And we were bringing it back and forth to them see, to make sure they knew it was real.

So at the very last end, the last day, I told the thieves, come down tomorrow, bring one person, bring the painting, we'll make the deal. At that point, the next morning, we found out from our surveillance teams in Sweden that three individuals were coming down on a train.

They took the ride down, and they had a bag, and inside the bag was a square object the size of the painting. They asked me, should we take this down now, should we arrest them? I said no, no, hold off, wait, see what happens.

After the six-hour ride, they came to walk to the hotel. Two people stayed outside with the bag, and a third individual came back in to see me.

DAVIES: Now, if I can just get into the story at this point, you're in there on your own. I assume you are unarmed, right?

Mr. WITTMAN: Right.

DAVIES: But there is secret videotaping going on.

Mr. WITTMAN: Absolutely.

DAVIES: You're dealing with criminals. You don't know what they might do. They might kill you and take the cash. Where's your backup? (Unintelligible).

Mr. WITTMAN: We had a Danish SWAT team in a room next door, and they were ready to go upon my signal through a video camera. They would come into the room and make the arrest.

But you know, one thing we always did in the FBI, something we always said in the undercover unit was your backup team was there to avenge you but not to save you because by the time backup teams get into those situations, usually it takes too long.

And, you know, it's not like the movies where, you know, if something bad's going to happen, you know, the bad guy stands there and points his gun at you and stands there and tells you about it for about 20 minutes. No, if it happens, it happens very quickly because that's how it goes.

DAVIES: And in this particular case, you went through a run-through to make sure everything was set, and you discovered a snag.

Mr. WITTMAN: Yeah, right when they were coming into the hotel, I checked the key to the room that the SWAT team had, and the key didn't work. So I had to run downstairs very quickly and, you know, with all the support that you have and the dozens of undercover agents that are outside and all the SWAT teams and everything, in the end, it always comes down to the one guy in the room. So I checked the door again...

DAVIES: It's one of these little magnetic keys.

Mr. WITTMAN: They key, right, didn't open the door.

DAVIES: And the SWAT guys' key would not have worked.

Mr. WITTMAN: That's right.

DAVIES: You would've been there on your own if you hadn't checked.

Mr. WITTMAN: If I hadn't checked. So I went down and got a new key, came back and handed it off to them and went back into the room, at which point the individual came up. He had the he wanted to look at the money. He did look at the money. He said it was good.

So I said, go get it. Go get the painting and bring it to me, we'll do this deal. He goes outside, he gets his two friends, and they run away. And I get a call from the Danish police, saying what happened? What did you say? And I said, I don't know. I said, I didn't say anything. I can't understand why they would run.

And they said, well, do you want me to arrest them? I said, no, hold up again. See what happens. Well, what they did was they went to another hotel, they got a fourth individual, who had come down the night before, and he had the painting.

So the bag that they carried was nothing but a decoy. Had we taken an arrest at that point with that bag, we would've had nothing. But they got the fourth person, they got the bag and they came back, and that's when they brought it to my room. And at that point, we were able to recover that $36 million Rembrandt, which was, as I say, it was probably the finest piece in the museum.

DAVIES: Right, and you since you're the phony authenticator, you take the painting into the bathroom and said let me look at it real carefully, and then the signal for the SWAT team to come in was what?

Mr. WITTMAN: Well, basically it was this is a done deal. And so what I would normally do in these cases is take the painting into usually a darkroom and a safe room. And if you think about it, the only place in a hotel room that's really relatively safe with a lock is the bathroom.

So I would take it in the bathroom, take a look at it, make sure it was right. In this case, I'd had a chance to look at the back of the painting through pictures, and I noticed that the clips holding the painting into the frame were at a certain angle.

So at that point, I looked at the painting itself and noticed that the clips were at the same angle. So I could tell he had never taken it out of the frame. So I mentioned to him, I said this you've never even taken this out of the frame, have you? And he looked at me, he says, of course not, it's a Rembrandt.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WITTMAN: So he showed me some respect for the actual artwork itself. At that point, I made the signal. I went to the door. I had the painting in my hands right at the bathroom door, and I looked over, and they were having a hard time getting into the room.

DAVIES: The SWAT team.

Mr. WITTMAN: The SWAT team, yeah. It seemed like they couldn't get the door open. So I started to reach for the door to try to open it for them, okay, while the other guy while the bad guys had their back to me. And at that point, I guess the key did work because they did make it in, and I immediately bolted out with the painting.

DAVIES: And the signal was we've got a done deal.

Mr. WITTMAN: We've got a done deal, that's right.

DAVIES: And you've been in this situation so many times, where people that you have befriended over many months, suddenly, armed men burst into the room, and they realize that you are indeed a cop, and they have been had. What kind of interactions occur between you and the crooks at that point?

Mr. WITTMAN: Well, you know, at that point, my feelings are one of, you know, relief that it's over, okay, because we've finally gotten the piece back that we wanted.

Many times, you know, it takes months and months of negotiations and meetings and, you know, ingratiation to try to get the individuals to work with me. But once it's done that way, there's a certain amount of relief.

But in some cases, it's actually interesting because in some cases, there is a feeling of being let down, as well, all right. And that is because when you work undercover, and you do a good job, all right, you have to identify traits in people, in your targets and whatnot, that are human. If you don't do that, then you can never ingratiate them. You can't become friends with a person that you can't stand.

So sometimes in those cases, you know, you see the good sides of people, as well as the bad. And as a result, you know, you can identify with some of those good traits that they have. And, you know, when you see them get in trouble, and you know their families are going to suffer, then you feel a little bit of pity in that situation, and you, you know, you have to go live with that.

DAVIES: Our guest is Robert K. Wittman. He is a former FBI agent who spent many years investigating stolen art and antiquity cases. He has a new book about his experiences. It's called "Priceless." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is former FBI Agent Robert Wittman. He's written a book about his years recovering stolen art and antiquities. It's called "Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures."

Are there connections between the legal world of art buying and trading and those who traffic in this? I mean, there must be some intersection. Otherwise, nobody would ever...

Mr. WITTMAN: Oh, absolutely. The connection between the legal and the illegal art worlds is that the legal world sets the prices. What I found also is that these thieves, they go out, and they'll steal things that are hot at that moment.

Just six weeks ago, there was a theft at the modern museum of art in Paris, where five paintings were stolen. One of the paintings was a Picasso, and just a few weeks before that, a Picasso had set a new world record at auction at $104 million.

So you can bet your bottom dollar that the thief and the thieves who were looking at those paintings, you know, they wanted one of those Picassos to go with the grouping.

So, yeah, the legal world sets these prices, it advertises these prices, and then the thieves who are reading the papers, they are watching "Antiques Road Show," theyre seeing these shows and these pricing shows, and they know that these are the pieces that they want because they're thinking that that's where they can get their most money.

DAVIES: And then if they steal the artwork, if it's particularly rare and precious and well-known, who are they going to sell it to?

Mr. WITTMAN: Well, that's the big question. I always say that the real art in an art theft is not the stealing but the selling because that's when we get everything back, when it hits the market.

You know, these huge paintings, as I said, that were stolen from the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, they're never going to be back they're never going to be able to be sold, you know, on the black market. People who have the ability, collectors who have the ability to buy those types of paintings, they don't want stolen property.

It's dangerous. It'll land you in jail. So when people always ask me what is a stolen painting worth? I always say between five and 10 years in a federal prison.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Right. Well, so do people move stolen Picassos and Rembrandts, Monets?

Mr. WITTMAN: Not so much the Picassos and Rembrandts, but, you know, there is a lot of stolen property out there that does not rise to that level.

Now, when we talk about that, I mean, items under $10,000 that are not unique but still valuable, you know, vases, clocks, many different items, collectibles, those pieces can be sold at auction and also at flea markets and through secondary houses.

So yeah, that does happen, and that's your more common burglary. Of the $6 billion a year that's estimated that's stolen in art and antiquities around the world, you know, probably 90 percent of that is what we're talking about, that kind of material.

The other 10 percent are these really high-value, high-dollar art thefts from museums, and those are not able to be sold.

DAVIES: It also struck me that one thing that's different about your job in pursuing stolen art is that unlike a drug deal or a murder, you're not just trying to catch a criminal, you're trying to recover the artifact.

Mr. WITTMAN: Yeah, that was always my primary goal. You know, that is different. You know, I was actually assigned to the property crimes squad in the FBI in Philadelphia. That's where I actually was assigned. And, you know, the goal there is to recover I mean, is to catch individuals doing armed robberies. It's local robbery, that type of thing.

My goal was always to try to recover the artifacts. In fact, the first case I was involved in was actually an armed robbery of a museum here in well, in Philadelphia where...

DAVIES: Now, that's unusual in an armed robbery.

Mr. WITTMAN: Yeah, in fact, there's only been two I know of in the United States. That was the first one, it was the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia. And thats the only one I know of where a gunshot was actually fired.

An individual went into the Rodin Museum, pulled out a .25 Raven automatic pistol. He put all the guards on the floor, and then when one of the guards confronted him, he pulled the pistol out and shot a round into the wall to prove it was real.

At that point, of course, the guard complied and laid right down. The individual then grabbed the sculpture called "The Mask of the Man with the Broken Nose" by Auguste Rodin, a very wonderful piece, and ran out the door, got away with it.

But it was great that he shot the round because about four months later, when we caught him on the street, he actually had the gun on him. And we were able to do ballistics tests and show that the bullet in the wall came from that gun. So it was great evidence to convict him.

DAVIES: How did you find the thief?

Mr. WITTMAN: We had gotten information. Usually, in these cases many times, these cases are solved through informant information. They get offered a reward for information, and an anonymous person called in, gave us an idea of who this person was. At that point, we were able to go take pictures of him surreptitiously, put him into a photo lineup, and then the guards picked him out and said that was the guy.

DAVIES: You know, in some ways, a stolen work of valuable art is a little bit akin to kidnapping. I mean, you know, this is a huge trend from a lot of companies in the world, employees are kidnapped. And there's a whole industry that's grown up around negotiating the release of hostages, which and they never try a rescue, or they rarely try rescues. They really, they pay and get the hostage back. Do we see a similar thing in museums or collectors who say, we'll pay to get this back, no questions asked?

Mr. WITTMAN: Well, you know, that's something that does happen. It doesn't happen in the U.S. too often. It's illegal to pay ransoms in the U.S. and to allow people to get away with crime. So, you know, generally speaking, when were investigating a case with the FBI, anyone who was involved would have to go before a grand jury.

So at that point, they have to tell a truth, and they have to, you know, not be part of the actual operations, the actual crime. But when we go outside the U.S., you know, different laws, different statutes, different countries, yeah, ransom becomes an issue.

And even now, there was a time for, you know, for about 10 years where in England, pieces were stolen over and over again and ransomed back to the insurance companies. But they passed a law in the early 2000s, which makes it illegal. It's money laundering now.

But in France, it's still something that's done. Switzerland, it's also been known to happen. But right now, what happens there, it's not so much ransom, the paintings are used by gangs as get-out-of-jail-free cards. And it's not a ransom situation, it's a negotiation point because these gangs are not doing simple art-theft crimes. They're also doing drug-dealing, they're doing money-laundering, they're running stolen cars, they're running guns. They're into all different theaters of criminal activity.

And then what happens is when they get caught selling drugs, they have the paintings in the background that they had stolen from the museum, and then they come back and say, okay, we'll give you these paintings back based on a lower, say, sentencing for prosecution, or if you let us go on this charge. And it's for deal-making purposes down the road.

DAVIES: Huh, did you see cases like that, where people got off or got off lighter because they agreed to give back some stolen art?

Mr. WITTMAN: In Europe, yes, yes. Again, not in the United States, but in Europe, yeah, we do see that happen.

DAVIES: The FBI didn't have a stolen art unit before you got into their lives.

Mr. WITTMAN: Right, right.

DAVIES: Tell us a little bit about your own knowledge and affection for art.

Mr. WITTMAN: Well, you know, what happened was I never really thought I'd be involved in the art and artifacts division of the FBI, if there was one, I didnt even know there was one at the time. And there wasn't. We started in 2005.

But when I joined the FBI in 1988, I had grown up in a household where my dad was a Oriental antiques dealer. And he would sell Japanese and Chinese artifacts, not artifacts but art.

And I grew up in Baltimore. He had a shop on Howard Street, and we would, you know, we worked together occasionally on Saturdays, and I would help him in the shop as he got older.

So I got my background in the business of art, which is totally different from art history. The business of art and how to buy and sell art has nothing to do with art history, okay. It's all about how to make a deal.

And so when I came into the FBI, as I said, the first case I was assigned, along with my new partner, Bob Basen(ph), who was the art guy in Philadelphia, was a theft from the Rodin Museum.

And he and I worked together on that. Once we solved that particular robbery, we were actually given another one, which was the theft of a large crystal ball, which was owned by the dowager empress of China. And she that was stolen from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology. So we recovered that, as well.

After that happened, the bureau sent me to art school at the Barnes Foundation, and I did a year of art history and recognition of art. And then they sent me to the GIA in Santa Monica for a Gemological Institute of America for diamond school and then to Zales Corporation in Dallas for gemology.

And once they send you to all these schools, you got to start using that technique, that knowledge, and that's why I got into the art and antiques.

DAVIES: And so you could sometimes come off to a criminal as someone who was an art appraiser, for example.

Mr. WITTMAN: Well, sometimes usually a dealer, sometimes an authenticator, depending on the specific type of artifacts I was looking at. But again, the real knowledge that really helped me was the knowledge of the art business because, you know, when I did a case say I did in a case in Santa Fe for six months, and I was undercover there buying Native American Indian artifacts that were illegal.

And I didn't have to know a whole lot about that, but I did have to know how to make a deal, all right. And so what I convinced the dealers I was working with, they called it a Santa Fe Mafia in some circles because there was a $50-million Native American business there in artifacts that are illegal.

And what I convinced them was I was representing buyers from around the world who were interested in buying these artifacts, but I wasn't real knowledgeable. So I needed their help to make sure we got the best material for these buyers.

DAVIES: And you got this guy to give you, what was it, a Comanche headdress?

Mr. WITTMAN: Yeah, at one point, we did get a Comanche war bonnet. It had eagle feathers with a number of different types of decorations on it that were illegal.

Another piece we got was a piece of wood that was carved into the shape of a corn cob. And this was actually a corn god, and, you know, when we get into the Native American artifacts and these sacred items, these pieces are very valuable to the communities, communities that they represent. And it was an amazing education to find out about that.

DAVIES: Robert Wittman's new memoir is called "Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.

Our guest is Robert Wittman, who spent 20 years as an FBI agent working undercover to track down art thieves and recover stolen art and antiquities. He has a new memoir with writer John Shiffman called "Priceless."

Let's talk about one of the cases that you solved and that you write about in the book, a couple of items taken from the Antiquities Museum at the University of Pennsylvania - one Egyptian, one Chinese. Tell us about what was missing.

Mr. WITTMAN: Yeah. The Chinese piece was a wonderful crystal ball. It's the second-largest crystal ball in the world. The only one's that's bigger is at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. This particular one weighed more than 50 pounds. It's a perfect crystal, perfectly round sphere. It took 10 years to create, okay, in a tube with water and emery powder, and it was turned constantly to make this sphere. And as I say, it was owned by the Dowager Empress and was collected in the early 1900s by the University of Pennsylvania.

That particular piece, and also a statue of the god Osiris, which is the god of the dead, were stolen together.

DAVIES: And that was an Egyptian piece, right?

Mr. WITTMAN: Yeah. It was an Egyptian piece, yeah, from 3500 B.C. So we're talking about this piece, the crystal ball and the god Osiris being stolen together at one point. And, you know, we had no clues for about two years.

DAVIES: Did they simply open the museum one day and find them missing?

Mr. WITTMAN: Well, you know, we never did catch the actual thieves themselves, but we did recover the items. My assumption - you know, this is my opinion and I don't know for a fact, but they were doing a lot of construction at the museum at the time, redoing doors, rebuilding the alarm systems, a lot of construction. And I know that the - some of the workers were going outside the museum taking a cigarette break during the day, and they would leave the door open, you know, prop it open to get in and out. So I suspect that someone at some point went out and left the door open, all right, and that's how the intruders got in and stole the pieces.

Well, the next morning, we found what they call the wave(ph), which is what the crystal ball would sit on. It's a silver sculpture that the crystal ball sat on, and it was on one of the pylons on the South Street Bridge. It was just sitting there. So, obviously, they couldn't carry all this stuff. The Osiris was too heavy, along with the crystal ball, to carry at one time.

It took us about two years. Finally, we cracked the case. What happened was one of the workers at the museum went to a secondhand shop, and she's walking through, just rummaging through, and she looks in the back and there is the god Osiris, and she sees it.

DAVIES: This is just a coincidence of museum worker saying, hey, wait a minute.

Mr. WITTMAN: That's exactly right. She had been there. She's a volunteer. She knew the place, and it was a $15,000 reward offered, as well. So she went back to the museum, you know, excitedly and told the director. They went down to the antique shop and they made the claim. Of course, that was the god Osiris. The piece was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. You know, it's a 5,000 year-old-statue.

So we got the, you know, my partner Bob Bazin, again, and I, we went into the shop. We found out where this piece was being - had been bought from. It was bought from a picker who was going around walking around the area with a shopping cart picking trash, and that's what he did. We found him, interviewed him, and we found out which house it came from.

We went to the house, and there was an individual there. And we knocked on the door and we said sir, you know, we're here to talk to you about the god Osiris that you gave to the picker. He says, yeah, about two years ago I found it in my mud room just sitting there by itself.

DAVIES: My mud room, what did he mean by that?

Mr. WITTMAN: Well, he had like a little mud room outside of the back of his house.

DAVIES: Oh, like an entryway where you knock mud off your...

Mr. WITTMAN: Exactly, into the back of his house which was set on the back on the side on South Street. So we said well, did you find anything else? And he said well, there was this lawn ball.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WITTMAN: He called it a lawn ball. And we - my partner and I said you mean like a crystal ball? He said yeah. Exactly. And I said well, what did you do with it? And I'm hoping he didn't throw it away. You know, I was just terrified that he threw it away. And he says, well, I gave it to my housekeeper. And we said well, why would you do that? And he said, well, because she's a witch and she needed a crystal ball. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WITTMAN: So, yeah, we said okay, this is great. Call your housekeeper. Find out if she still has it. Turns out she lived up in Trenton, New Jersey. So at that point, my partner and I, we ran up to Trenton, New Jersey and we knocked on the door, and she still had the piece. And we went in and she said oh, yeah, we have it upstairs. So she takes us upstairs into her bedroom, and there's a young lady with blonde hair, very pretty, and she said, and here it is. And right on her dresser, the crystal ball was sitting on a little stand with a baseball cap on it.

Now, we're talking about, you know, the Dowager Empress of China's crystal ball from the 1800s, worth maybe $350,000 at the time, sitting on this young girl's dresser with a baseball cap on it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WITTMAN: She had no clue, you know, what it was.

DAVIES: And so in that case, no reason to doubt the good faith of anybody you talked to, right?

Mr. WITTMAN: Not those individuals.

DAVIES: No criminal charges in this case.

Mr. WITTMAN: Not those individuals. No. We basically we could not prove that anyone had any criminal liability at that point, because they didn't know what they had. They didn't even know what the crystal ball was.

DAVIES: So as you imagine how they might have gotten there, what do you figure?

Mr. WITTMAN: You know, my thought of it is that it might've been a frat prank, you know, by some of the kids at the University of Pennsylvania. Maybe they went in, grabbed these pieces knowing that they were very, very popular and very high profile, took them out and basically didn't want them and left them in the mud room when they couldn't carry them, and that was it, just didn't want to be caught. And I think they just dumped them. And thank God they didn't dump them into the river or anything like that, because that happens as well in some cases.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Robert Wittman. He's a retired FBI agent who spent many years tracking down stolen art, artifacts and antiquities. He's written a book about his experiences. It's called "Priceless."

We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Robert Wittman. He's a retired FBI agent who spent years working on cases of art and antiquity theft. His new book about his experiences is called "Priceless."

You have to tell the story about the time the diamond buyer was involved and you were going to meet him at a hotel.

Mr. WITTMAN: Yeah. That was an interesting one, too. There was a situation where an individual went into a jeweler, and what he wanted to do, he wanted to buy diamonds and he was trying to tell the jeweler that he was working for the CIA and that he was paying his informants in diamonds, with diamonds in Europe. So, of course, the jeweler became suspicious and he showed him checks worth $15 million, and he wanted to buy millions of dollars worth of loose diamonds. So the jeweler called us at the FBI and said, you know, this is the situation. What's the deal?

And, of course, as soon as we heard that, you know, CIA agents don't carry identification. They don't have badges to say CIA on them, which is what this guy was showing. So we said look, make the deal, and we'll go do the delivery. So at that point, we waited a weekend, and that Monday, I was the one who was going to deliver these $15 million worth of loose diamonds in a satchel, briefcase.

And while I was discussing that with the individual, he was asking me are you going to have that, you know, handcuffed to your arm? And I said, yeah. That's how we usually carry them. I'll have the satchel handcuffed to my arm for safety and security. And he said okay. So we went up and we met him in a hotel in Philadelphia, and I met him in the lobby, and he comes down. And it was strange. He was coming down from his room, and he came off the elevator and he had a heavy coat on.

DAVIES: And the plan was you were then going to go up to his room to make the exchange. Right.

Mr. WITTMAN: Yeah. We weren't going to go out. We weren't supposed to go outside at all. He just comes on the elevator from his room with a heavy coat on. That was very suspicious right off the bat, so we spoke for a little while. I noticed he was starting to perspire, but he wouldn't take his coat off. So then when he suggested we go to the room now and go make the deal, I said okay. So we started walking towards elevator, and at that point I called in the SWAT team that were sitting around reading papers and whatnot in the lobby. And when he was arrested, he actually had a pistol, which is expected. But he also had a hatchet.

And the plan was to cut off my arm up in the room and then grab the satchel and jump out the window and jump into his car, which was parked right underneath the window. And he had left a whole bag full of bandages there as well in case he got hurt so he could bandage himself up. So it was pretty interesting. I guess he had some pretty nefarious ideas in his mind when he was going to do that deal.

DAVIES: So pretty clear after this came down that you could see that he planned your murder and dismemberment.

Mr. WITTMAN: Well, I would think so. I would hope he'd kill me before he cut my arm off.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WITTMAN: Oh, no. But, you know, those things happen. It was funny, because the U.S. attorney I worked with, Bob Goldman, he prosecuted the case, and I called him. I said, yeah, this is what he did. This is how it happened. He got five years in prison. And Bob laughingly said to me, you know, you should've let him hit you. We could've gotten over five years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WITTMAN: And I said, I don't think so Bob. Not a good idea. A great guy.

DAVIES: You know, we were talking about how, in undercover work, you ingratiate yourself with people. In fact, your chapter on this is entitled "Befriend and Betray."

Mr. WITTMAN: And betray.

DAVIES: And you tell an interesting story of the case where you were in Santa Fe working somebody who was dealing in illegal Indian antiquities and artifacts.

Mr. WITTMAN: Right.

DAVIES: And you actually busted him and then got this fascinating email from him a couple of days later.

Mr. WITTMAN: Yeah, he did. He was an interesting fellow, very intelligent, had a good family. And as I said earlier, you know, people who engage in these criminal activities not are all bad. Okay, I mean, you know, there are good sides to everyone. This guy loved his family. He had good children. And, anyway, I got to know him pretty well over a course of six months, you know, having dinner in his home and whatnot with him, because he trusted me as a dealer.

Now I was doing, you know, undercover criminal deals with him, but - and he was very happy to do that but, you know, he had good sides to him, too. So after the bust went down, he actually sent me an email and he said, you know, what can I say? I think he said in the email. Good job. Good for you. You know, what can I say? He said but one thing I wanted to tell you is that I was glad it was you because you were always a gentleman about it, and I don't hold you responsible, you know, for the situation.

And I wrote back to him. I said, you know, I'm sorry you had this situation happen to you. You know, don't do anything crazy. You know, do not hurt yourself in any way shape or form. Just get a good lawyer and take care of your life. And that's what I told him.

In fact, he sent me an email about two weeks ago, and he heard about the book coming out and that he was in one of the chapters, a reporter called him. And once again, he said well, it's better that you tell the story on yourself before somebody else does. So he said good luck to you, and I hope you have a great book.

DAVIES: He's out of jail, I assume?

Mr. WITTMAN: Oh, he's out of jail. Yeah. Actually, though, you know, after he went to jail with me - not that, you know, he actually got probation on the case. After he got out and was done with that, he got locked up again on another case. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WITTMAN: ...I guess, you know, that happens over and over again. People come out and they just, sometimes they just don't learn the lesson. They just got to go back and do it again.

DAVIES: Easy money is easy money, I guess.

Mr. WITTMAN: Yeah.

DAVIES: You know, one of the things that - it struck me as I read the case is that sentences were not heavy for stealing some really important works of art.

Mr. WITTMAN: Yeah. You know, up until 2002, there was not big sentences. I mean, one of the biggest sentences we got was a theft from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, where two individuals were stealing almost two-and-a-half million dollars worth of very, very important artifacts.

In fact, that's the largest heist and recovery of U.S. Civil War and U.S. Revolutionary War artifacts in history, right here from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. But in that case, the individuals got 40 months in prison. And there was an upward - what we call an upward departure because of the fact that 15 museums sent letters to the judge at the sentencing time and said that this was a, you know, a heinous crime against humanity and against the whole country in the museum network. So the judge did an upward departure.

And it wasn't until 2002 or 2003, I think it was, that Sentencing Commission, the U.S. Sentencing Commission added extra time for the theft of these types of artifacts. And that was as a result of a hearing that was done where they actually were able to see a war bonnet that was worn by Geronimo that we recovered that was being offered for sale illegally, that we recovered. And we showed them this war bonnet, and they saw it and then, you know, I think they got the feeling at that point that this is important material. So the sentences started getting better after that.

DAVIES: One of the details that I love about the case of the stuff missing from the Historical Museum of the Civil War artifacts is that the first thing you did was say I want to interview every single employee. The one guy who called in sick that day turned out to be the culprit.

Mr. WITTMAN: Isn't that always the way?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WITTMAN: You know, it's the one guy who's not there. And - but he was the one that everybody in the museum who had worked there for years told me he couldn't have done it. And he was the go-to guy. He was the nicest guy there - had been there 17 years working there. They said it was not way he could've been involved. We know this guy. So everybody vouched for him. So, you know, at that point, I moved on.

DAVIES: And he was lifting stuff right and left and his explanation was - what? I needed the money.

Mr. WITTMAN: Well, he needed the money. And what he would do for a period of about seven years, one piece a week he would take it out of the museum, and he would go sell it to this electrician whom lived pretty close to him. The electrician just liked collecting. And that's the closest thing I ever ran into with a "Dr. No" situation.

You know, in James Bond, the "Dr. No" movie, where Dr. Know is sitting in his cave and he's got the paintings on the wall? Well, this electrician, when I went to his house, he had a three-bedroom row house, and he cut out one of the bedroom walls and created this fantastic museum of about 200 pieces that he had stolen, and it was just amazing to see. One of the finest, you know, U.S. historical museums in the country was in this guy's row house.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: One of the last cases you worked on involved the biggest art theft in history. In fact, I believe you describe this as the biggest property crime in U.S. history, right? It's a heist from the Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990.

Mr. WITTMAN: Yeah. It's the single-largest valued property crime ever. And probably when it comes to art, it could be almost as well. I mean, you know, the Holocaust and Nazis theft of artwork throughout Europe during World War II probably, of course, would be more. But in a single incident from one museum at one time, it could be the largest ever.

DAVIES: And what was the value of the paintings that were taken?

Mr. WITTMAN: Well, in 1990, two individuals dressed as Boston police officers went in to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum after hours. They put the guards - they tied them up, you know, handcuffed them to pipes in the wall, and then for the next hour or so, went around the museum and I believe taking out 11 paintings and a number of objects of the art.

Two of the paintings that they stole were a Rembrandt seascape. It's the only one known called "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee" and a Vermeer. The Vermeer is called "The Concert" and it's considered a masterpiece. It's the only Vermeer that's missing.

At the time, the heist was valued at about over $300 million. Today the value is probably up around $500 million if, you know, if you could sell these pieces on the open market with provenance(ph).

DAVIES: And you describe your work on this case in a lot detail and its a fascinating story that we dont have time for here. But in the end, it was very frustrating and it seems undermined by turf battles and disputes, a lot of them within the FBI. This was a tough experience for you.

Mr. WITTMAN: Well, you know, law enforcement works together in most cases and works very well. Sometimes, you know, there's different groups within law enforcement that - Ill never forget one colonel from the Jean Dom Marie in Paris said to me, Bob, this is going to be a very difficult case because everybody wants their picture in the paper.

And the problem was, you know, I didnt really care about that. I just wanted to get the pieces back. And then I said to them, you can all put your pictures in the paper all you want, just let me get the pieces back first and then we'll be happy.

Yeah, it was a tough case. We did recover two Picassos in that case.

DAVIES: But not from that heist, from a different heist in Nice, right?

Mr. WITTMAN: From a different heist. Yeah, from the same group. We also recovered four paintings from the Mus�e des Beaux-Arts in Nice, you know, a Monet in Sicily and two Burgles. So we got a total amount of about $70 million for the paintings back in the, you know, during the case itself. But we did not get the two pieces, the Vermeer and the Rembrandt that we were hunting, okay, from the Isabella Gardner Museum in that case.

But what I do think, in my opinion, they do exist. In my opinion, they're in France. And quite honestly, the - really the epic win from that case is that we know that theyre still in existence, theyre not destroyed. And that knowledge is wonderful. Because I honestly believe in the end they will come back and that 94, 95 percent of the material that is stolen that's of that quality and caliber does get recovered. You know, so it's missing for a while, it's missing though maybe during our time, but there will be people in the future who will see it.

DAVIES: You have a private consulting business now.

Mr. WITTMAN: Right.

DAVIES: And one of the things you look into is security. How well do we protect our precious art and antiquities?

Mr. WITTMAN: Well, in the U.S. we do a pretty good job. Quite honestly, it's a little bit easier in the U.S. because our buildings are newer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WITTMAN: Quite honestly, if you go to France or you go the Spain, the buildings are five, seven, 800 years old, very difficult to protect those buildings. The new buildings here in the United States, of course, are newer. We have more technology. We have better, you know, infrastructure in the system, so we do a pretty good job of it. That's why you dont see many of these big armed robberies here. They happen a lot in France and in Europe because of that situation but they can get away with it. But here, not so much.

What we do is we do museum site surveys for security and, actually, I'm continuing on. I reached a point in the FBI where doing these investigations, you know, I was kind of stymied by the fact that everything had to be a criminal investigation. Well, a lot of these investigations, although they are criminal, they are civil as well. So now I'm able to do a lot more cases and I'm working for a number of insurance companies and galleries and I'm actually out hunting down stolen art, too.

DAVIES: Really?

Mr. WITTMAN: Yeah, still am doing it.

DAVIES: But they dont lead to prosecutions, youre just simply trying to get the pieces back?

Mr. WITTMAN: Sometimes they do. I recovered a Juan Gris painting that was stolen from St. Louis back in 2004. I recovered it in March in West Palm Beach. That particular case, the individual was charged, has been charged with interstate transportation of stolen property. But some other cases it doesnt work that way. They're not criminal cases. So, yeah, they're missing. Maybe theyve been missing for a long time and they're in another country.

I was just in Romania trying to hunt down a stolen Chagall, so, yeah, it depends on the situation.

DAVIES: Well, Robert Wittman, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. WITTMAN: Thank you.

DAVIES: Robert Wittman's new memoir with writer John Shiffman is called "Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures."

You can find an excerpt of the book and photos of the FBI's top 10 art crimes at our website, freshair.npr.org.

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