It seems like a decade ago that Robert Wittman, a retired FBI art crime expert, spoke at Bucknell University.
There were some things I wanted to mention which didn’t make the news story. Such is the nature of this rapidly changing season.
We spoke about Wittman’s life and career while seated in a Samek Art Museum office a few hours prior to his official talk. Born in Tokyo, raised in Baltimore, his dad had a second career buying and selling art and collectibles.
Wittman, author of “Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures” (2010), has been called the greatest living art crime sleuth. But his 20-year FBI career didn’t begin with tracking down art thieves.
“I worked different kinds of violations,” he said. “I did investigations into truck hijacking, interstate transportation of stolen property, property crime.” he said. “I also did drug investigations. I was doing that for two years in Philadelphia. And also political corruption.”
The art crime work started in about 1993.
“At the time, I wasn’t really interested in art crime,” he said. “When I went into the FBI in 1988 I was watching TV shows like Miami Vice, Hill Street Blues and things like that.”
He admitted the references dated him, but I too watched some of those when they were new.
“At the time, I thought I’d like to be in Miami on a cigarette boat,” he said. “But it didn’t work out that way. They sent me to Philly. I was one of 5,000 law enforcement officers in the city.”
Truck hijackings were huge in the northeast back then, not to mention drugs and corruption at many levels. Much of it, but not all, has been cleaned up thanks to efforts which started around then, initiated mostly by feds.
Wittman’s art crime break came after an armed robbery from Philly’s Rodin Museum. Rodin’s “The Man with the Broken Nose,” a sculpture from the impressionist era, was taken. Wittman recalled the suspect fired a round into a wall after museum guards doubted his little pistol was a real gun. A ballistic investigation made it easy to link the suspect to the crime.
After recovering three pieces of artwork taken from the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Wittman was sent to art school by the FBI.
“As a result of that, I started working specifically in art crime,” he said. “I kind of fell into it more than navigating my way into it.”
Each art crime is different, Wittman said, compared to more mundane illicit acts.
“A bank robbery is a bank robbery is a bank robbery. A drug deal is a drug deal is a drug deal. How many ways can you buy coke on the corner?” he mused. “These art crimes are always different. Every single one, you are learning something new. It could be American art, it could be European art, it could be looted Iraqi artifacts or Native American artifacts.”
Among the things learned was that the work of Claude Monet, impressionist painter, was a target of criminals due to the artist’s enduring popularity. Pablo Picasso was frequently selected due to the sheer volume of work he produced.
Some of Wittman’s work was under cover, but it wasn’t a favorite task.
“It wasn’t like the movies,” he said. “I did that because it was the only way I could prove the case.”
Under cover work was stressful, Wittman added, but it was something which he did often between 1995 and 2008.
“It takes time,” he noted. “I did some cases when I was under cover for three years. Sometimes it was a buy-bust, a little faster, maybe two weeks or three weeks.”
One hint Wittman mentioned was to keep everything as truthful as possible when working under cover.
“If you do that, you don’t have to remember lies,” he noted. “If you are going to be under cover for a couple of years, it is very difficult to lie for years on end. Criminals have good memories.”
Wittman, now a private provider of protection and recovery of art investments, said art and collectibles are a huge market.
“Back 30 years ago, baseball cards didn’t sell for $1 million. (Original) Spiderman comic books didn’t sell for hundreds of thousand of collars. But today they do,” he said. “It is a $200 billion industry in the collectible and art market. Of that, about $6 billion is the stolen property market.”
Of the $6 billion in what the FBI calls the illicit cultural property market, 75 percent is frauds, forgeries and fakes.
“That is the real burgeoning big thing today,” Wittman said. “It is also what really affects the consumer market as well. The people who are buying the art are the ones being defrauded, not museums, institutions and galleries.”
Wittman concluded that the highest degree of caution must be taken by buyers of artwork at online auctions or via email offers. Make sure, he said with a smile, Picasso’s name is spelled correctly. It has a double “s” in it.
Staff Writer Matt Farrand can be reached at 570-742-9671 and via email at email@example.com.