Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 6/1/2010
Compelling memoir that keeps you reading hinges on good storytelling that may or may not be reliable.
Not in the case of Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures by Robert K. Wittman.
The author’s take on the facts alone is enthralling enough to keep me reading.
Wise guys, Corsican mobsters, grave robbers and wealthy heiresses are real characters in this memoir written by a bona fide FBI agent.
The facts read as good as an art heist movie, like The Thomas Crown Affair with Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo.
When your resume includes recovering art and antiquities stolen from the world’s most celebrated collections and museums, you don’t need to embellish the details.
The action in the book starts with Wittman weeks away from solving a cold case that has long puzzled the art world.
Relying on over-the-top theatrics to keep his cover as an art broker, he sells six fake paintings to undercover police posing as drug dealers... for $1.2 million in bank wire transfers and gold coins... on a yacht cruising Biscayne Bay. Not what he had in mind only months away from retirement.
“Why was I risking my life and my hard-won reputation?” Wittman muses, as he lights a Cuban cigar and considers his 18-year career with the bureau.
As the FBI’s only undercover art crimes agent, Wittman had recovered $225 million worth of stolen art treasures and nabbed art thieves and black market traders in the United States as well as overseas.
Now, he was on the verge of solving a spectacular art crime, the $500 million theft of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
Art crime cases require special handling and respect for jurisdictions. The goal is to rescue irreplaceable art and won’t often lead to arrests or maximum penalties for the bad guys. Art and antiquity crime is generally victimless, so U.S. law enforcement agencies do not often give it the same priority as drug, terrorism or fraud cases.
Yet, Wittman finds rescuing art far more rewarding than busting crack addicts or indicting unscrupulous investors.
“True, I carried a reputation for taking risks, but I also got results,” he writes detailing intriguing facts of a long list of art crimes rescues.
Wittman’s domestic scores include the recovery of an antiquity looted from an ancient Peruvian burial site; the return of a Civil War battle flag to an African-American regiment; the arrest of fraudulent Antiques Roadshow appraisers; and a search for Norman Rockwell paintings worth $1.2 million.
International missions included traveling to Spain to solve the theft of eighteen paintings worth $50 million from the home of a Madrid billionaire.
The Gardner museum case would elude Wittman, but his memoir is replete with several solid gets that earn the FBI art crime team considerable credibility.
Wittman educates readers on the difference between Monet and Manet and compares art crime attitudes among American and European law enforcement agencies.
We learn that France dedicates more full-time officers fighting art crime than the United States, while Italy maintains a 300-member art and antiquity staff lead by a general in the Carabinieri. Italian law enforcement investigates art crime using some of the same resources the DEA uses to fight drug cartels, including air power and cyber Intel.
Priceless by Robert K. Wittman is a worthwhile read with all the makings of an art crime TV series.
Category: Nonfiction, Memoir