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When you think of the FBI, you might imagine agents cuffing gangsters or breaking up terrorist plots. You might not think of FBI agents pondering a Rembrandt or going undercover to find a stolen Rodin. Well, some in the bureau do just that, as NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports as part of our series on new challenges facing museums.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: For many years, the FBI treated an art heist as they would any ordinary property crime, investigating it like a car theft or a bank robbery. For former FBI Agent Robert Wittman, that just didn't seem right.

Mr. ROBERT WITTMAN (Former Special Agent, FBI): Art crime is a little bit different. It's got a different group of people that are usually involved in it, and you have to have some knowledge of what's been taken in order to be able to determine where it might end up.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Two of Robert Wittman's first cases at the FBI involved art stolen from museums in Philadelphia. A bronze mask was taken at gunpoint from the Rodin Museum, and a crystal ball that once belonged to the Empress Dowager in China was swiped from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. It took Wittman two years to recover them. The FBI sent Wittman to art school at the Barnes Foundation. For more than a decade, he was one of only two agents at the FBI specializing in art crimes. Then, in 2003, looters began ransacking the Baghdad Museum. Anne Garrels reported on the incident for NPR.

(Soundbite of archive NPR report)

ANNE GARRELS: Museum guards stood by helpless as hundreds of looters, many of them armed, broke in. They took sledge hammers to locked glass display cases...

TEMPLE-RASTON: Gone were the 5,000-year-old tablets with some of the first-known writing. A Warka vase showing a procession going through a temple - the earliest known depiction of a ritual - also went missing. The incident focused minds of the FBI. Wittman said they set up a team to go to Baghdad and investigate.

Mr. WITTMAN: When they put that team together, it was a group of individuals. They went for soldier readiness training in El Paso, and we got ready to go over. And it turned out we didn't have to go because most of the material was found in bank vaults right across the street.

TEMPLE-RASTON: All ready to go and investigate the art crime of a lifetime, and they never got to leave the States. For Wittman, the silver lining was that the investigators he always wanted were now a 13-person unit called the Art Crimes Team. And if you think about it, it sounds like a pretty sexy job, chasing after...

Mr. ALEX NYERGES (Director, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond): Some art collector with a cave somewhere on the other side of the world.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Alex Nyerges is the director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.

Mr. NYERGES: And my usual answer is this. You've been watching Pierce Brosnan in movies one too many times.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Movies like the "The Thomas Crown Affair."

(Soundbite of movie "The Thomas Crown Affair")

Unidentified Actress: They shut off the air to drive out the tourists. Then they closed the gates to keep everybody out.

Ms. RENE RUSSO: (As Catherine Banning) Diversion, make a lot of noise over there so over here in this room, you can take a hundred million off the wall and waltz right out the front door.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Reality is somewhat less glamorous. Museums in the U.S. had become so well-protected, so heist-proof, that museum thefts here are rare. Bonnie Gardner is the Art Theft program director for the FBI. She says the most famous recent American art heist happened almost 20 years ago at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

Ms. BONNIE GARDNER (Director, Art Theft Program, FBI): A very prominent Rembrandt, a Vermeer, and several other impressionist paintings and other materials were taken. The total value of those paintings at the time was about $300 million, and it's probably gone up considerably since then. And those paintings are still missing.

TEMPLE-RASTON: A more typical museum theft is what happened to the Toledo Museum of Art two years ago. Don Bacigalupi is the Museum's director.

Mr. DON BACIGALUPI (Director, Toledo Museum of Art): I got the phone call that I hoped never to receive in my whole career which said the painting that you've agreed to lend us has gone missing.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The missing painting was a six by three Goya called "Children With A Cart." The Toledo Museum was lending it to the Guggenheim in New York.

Mr. BACIGALUPI: So, it's a wonderful painting with a great history, and we've had the painting for some 50 years. It has been lent to other museums and other exhibitions around the world during those intervening decades. This obviously was the first time that it had ever gone missing.

TEMPLE-RASTON: I know what you're thinking. Sophisticated art heist, a meticulously planned caper, an inside job. But it turned out to be less of a caper than a petty crime. Wittman was the lead investigator.

Mr. WITTMAN: The truck stopped for one evening where the two drivers got out and spent the night in a hotel. And while they're in there, a man went into the back of the truck. He was looking - basically he was looking for, like, construction equipment or tools to be stolen. And he found the crate and took the whole crate with him.

TEMPLE-RASTON: It took just 10 days to locate the painting. The thief himself called the FBI hoping to collect a reward. He's now serving five years in jail for the theft. The Toledo Museum was lucky. More often than not when art is stolen, it disappears, often for decades. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, New York.

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