By Robert K. Wittman; Reviewed by Christopher Eger
A former FBI special agent gives the ultimate insider look at the $6-billion-a-year art theft business.
** Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures. By Robert K. Wittman; published by Random House/Crown; available from ASIS, item #1908, 703/519-6200, www.asisonline.org; 336 pages; $25 (ASIS members) $28 (nonmembers).
The ageless crime of art theft has evolved markedly in recent decades. The explosion of art prices from the 1960s onward made irresistible to many the allure of snatching a piece of canvas, sculpture, or other antiquity worth seven figures or more. High profile crimes, such as Boston’s 1990 Gardner Museum heist of $500 million in rare paintings and the theft of Edvard Munch’s The Scream from the Olso National Museum in 1994, inspired a number of successful emulators. By 2000, the United Nations noted that art crime was a $6-billion-a-year business.
Former FBI Special Agent Robert K. Wittman, the founder and head of the agency’s Art Crime Team, has written a new book covering the subject in detail.
He discusses a range of experiences over his 20-year career, among them the time he lived for nine months undercover to locate and recover the Gardner art masterpieces. Other vignettes explore his efforts to recover such treasures as an original copy of the Bill of Rights lost during the Civil War, Geronimo’s headdress, and paintings from artists ranging from Pablo Picasso to Norman Rockwell. His travels took him from Philadelphia to Poland as he traded with smugglers and thieves, illegal collectors, and unscrupulous antique dealers.
Among the points made as Wittman details dozens of these cases is that the thieves were far from the dashing and ingenious cat burglars portrayed in movies; they were amateurs who formulated very simple plans that allowed them to walk away with masterpieces.
In the Gardner heist, for instance, they dressed as city police officers and tricked undertrained and unarmed night security guards into letting them into the museum. In another crime, an enterprising young man simply dropped a fishing line through a skylight and reeled away a $4 million painting. Wittman notes, however, that 90 percent of museum thefts are inside jobs, a phenomenon he addresses fully.
There are literally dozens of failure points highlighted in the book that may be lost on the general audience but are absolute “lessons learned” for anyone entrusted with archive, library, museum, or exhibit security.
Reviewer: Christopher Eger is a supervisor for a top-50 homeland security contractor that protects vital federal infrastructure including U.S. courthouses, offices, and four presidential libraries. He has worked in physical security and force protection for 10 years and has written more than 300 articles on security and related topics.