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A life rescuing the world’s treasures

Art theft detective Robert Wittman has seen it all

Created date

February 20th, 2017
Robert Wittman (right), receiving his official FBI credentials in 1988. Throughout his twenty-year career, he helped recover hundreds of millions of dollars in stolen art and historical documents.

Robert Wittman (right), receiving his official FBI credentials in 1988. Throughout his twenty-year career, he helped recover hundreds of millions of dollars in stolen art and historical documents.

To grasp the scope of Robert Wittman’s career, you first have to visualize an empty room. Now begin filling it with history’s most valuable cultural objects: the world’s second largest crystal ball once belonging to the Chinese Dowager Empress Cixi; an ancient Peruvian king’s golden body armor; Civil War Gen. George Gordon Meade’s presentation sword; artwork by Rodin, Rembrandt, and Goya; one of fourteen original copies of the U.S. Bill of Rights.

When Wittman joined the FBI in 1988, he had no idea just how much he would accomplish in his twenty years as an agent. In this time, he rescued an estimated $300 million worth of stolen artistic and historical treasures—part of a war on the rapidly expanding realm of cultural property theft. 

“Unfortunately, art theft is every bit as bad today as it was when I started with the Bureau in the late 80s—in fact, it’s gotten worse,” explains Wittman, who currently runs his own consulting, investigative, and stolen art recovery firm in Philadelphia, Pa. “The value of the industry has gone up exponentially, which is very attractive to thieves.”  

To illustrate his point, Wittman likes to quote the famous stickup man Willie Sutton, who, when asked why he robbed banks, responded, “Because that’s where the money is.”

Of course, successfully tracking down stolen art and busting those who trade in it require a special touch that Wittman describes in detail throughout his two New York Times bestselling books Priceless (Broadway Books, 2010) and The Devil’s Diary (HarperCollins, 2016), the latter of which was recently submitted for the Pulitzer Prize.

As it turned out, Wittman was a natural for the job. 

Early exposure to art deals

He was surrounded by the art business while growing up in Baltimore, Md., where his father owned and operated a high-end Asian antiques gallery. Here he learned about the field and, more importantly, about how art deals were transacted.

“This field isn’t about being an expert in all aspects of art or in a certain period of history,” says Wittman. “When you’re going undercover, the big thing is doing a deal. 

“That’s where everything happens: the fraud, the theft, the sting. It comes to a head when a sale goes through.”

Using this knowledge, Wittman founded the FBI’s Art Crime Team, a unit comprised of 16 special agents trained in art and cultural property investigative techniques. In addition to combating domestic theft, these agents also assist foreign law enforcement officials in world-wide cases.

Since Wittman created the team in 2004, its members have recovered nearly 15,000 items valued at over $160 million. But it was back in 1988 that he cut his teeth as an art theft detective.

“When I joined the FBI, my first two assignments were investigating thefts from museums in Philadelphia,” he recalls. 

One involved an early 1860s sculpture by Auguste Rodin, stolen at gunpoint from the Rodin Museum. The other was a large crystal ball that once belonged to the Chinese Dowager Empress Cixi (nineteenth century), taken from the Asian gallery in the University of Pennsylvania’s museum.

Crowning achievement

What followed these cases was a long line of impressive recoveries by Wittman, including what he considers a crowning achievement in his career.

In 2003, Wittman engineered an undercover sting to rescue one of the original copies of the Bill of Rights. Looted in 1865 from the North Carolina capitol building by a Union soldier during Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s famed “March to the Sea,” the document wound up for sale by an unscrupulous antiques dealer, who attempted to sell it to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

“We usually mean Xeroxed pages when we talk about ‘copies,’” says Wittman. “But this was one of 14 original copies of the Bill of Rights handcrafted by George Washington’s scribes in 1789. Each state and the federal government received one; in this instance, we recovered North Carolina’s, which had been missing for 140 years.”

Like all FBI agents, Wittman swore an oath to uphold the Constitution, and here he was literally saving a part of the actual document. Although far from his final endeavor, it was nonetheless a fitting summary of a life story better than fiction.

“The artistic and historical artifacts in museums and archives belong to all of us, and I, for one, want to keep it that way,” he says. “Looking back on my work, it’s a great feeling to know that, in protecting our history, I’ve helped to contribute to the pages of history.”