Former FBI agent writes best book yet on art crime

The Associated PressJune 13, 2010 

  • Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures

    Robert K. Wittman with John Shiffman

    Crown, 336 pages

In this stunning autobiography, former FBI undercover agent Robert K. Wittman details his 20-year career investigating the murky world of art theft.

Adopting the false but carefully documented identity of Bob Clay, a shady art dealer with a taste for contraband, Wittman successfully infiltrated domestic and international criminal networks to recover more than $225 million worth of stolen cultural property - items ranging from a Rembrandt self-portrait to an original copy of the U.S. Bill of Rights belonging to North Carolina.

[The 2003 undercover operation that retrieved the Bill of Rights copy was covered extensively by news media accounts at the time. But the book provides new details, including Wittman's involvement and how the sting abruptly ended before Wittman could try to make a criminal case against the two men who were trying to sell the document.]

Wittman also came closer than anyone else to unraveling the mysterious 1990 robbery at Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. His encounters with criminals closely associated with the theft make for some of the most riveting chapters in the book, providing new and surprising information about the heist and the probable whereabouts of the Gardner's missing Rembrandt and Vermeer.

Authoritative and superbly crafted, "Priceless" is absolutely, hands-down, the best book ever written on art crime. It is also a fascinating memoir, giving readers a look at the real-life challenges of a career in law enforcement: Wittman's day might begin with his donning a bulletproof vest to take part in a sting operation and end with his joining his wife to pump out their basement, flooded by a brutal Northeast storm.

A self-effacing patriot, Wittman says he initially joined the FBI "because it seemed like honorable work and a good way to serve the country." He encountered his share of frustration dealing with Washington bureaucrats, about whom he writes with wry humor, but he never let office politics or poor pay distract him from his steadfast pursuit of the world's misappropriated cultural treasures.

"Money is here today and gone tomorrow," says Wittman. "These objects are our history."

Jonathan Lopez is a columnist for Art & Antiques and author of "The Man Who Made Vermeers," a biography of the for ger Han van Meegeren.

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