Robert K. Wittman, the founder of the FBI's Art Crime Team, pulls back the curtain on his remarkable career, offering a real-life international thriller. The son of an antique dealer, Wittman built a twenty-year career going undercover, usually unarmed, to catch art thieves, scammers, and black market traders in Paris and Philadelphia, Rio and Santa Fe, Miami and Madrid. Wittman tells the stories behind his recoveries of priceless art and antiquities: the golden armor of an ancient Peruvian warrior king; the Rodin sculpture that inspired the Impressionist movement; the rare Civil War battle flag carried into battle by one of the nation's first African-American regiments. The art thieves and scammers he caught run the gamut from rich to poor, smart to foolish, organized criminals to desperate loners. Wittman has saved hundreds of millions of dollars worth of art and antiquities, but he considers them all equally priceless.--From publisher description.
One of my top reads this year is The Gardner Heist. Naturally, when I saw this book at the library, I had to read it. I was not disappointed with this suspenseful, well-written story.
Among his many accomplishments, Wittman recovered an original copy of the United States Bill of Rights which was stolen from the North Carolina capital building by Union troops during the Civil war.
In addition, his credits include the recovery of a unique self portrait of Rembrandt, valued at 35 million, two Norman Rockwell paintings, the Rodin Mask of the Man with a Broken Nose and many Civil War artifacts. These are but a few of his success stories.
According to Wittman, before he retired, he was very close to obtaining the Veermer and Rembrandt paintings stolen from the Gardner museum in 1990.
Because of egos and bureaucratic nightmares, the deal slipped away.
I highly recommend this book. From the first page to the last, I couldn't put it down!
has the courage for this sort of life, but I sure enjoyed reading a book about it.
“Americans, in particular, are said to be uncultured when it comes to high art, more likely to go to a ballpark than a museum. But as I tell my foreign colleagues, the statistics belie that stereotype. Americans visit museums on a scale eclipsing sports. In 2007, more people visited the Smithsonian Institution museums in Washington (24.2 million) than attended a game played by the Nations Basketball Association (21.8 million), the National Hockey League (21.2 million), or the National Football League (17 million).”
I was shocked by that fact. I was also surprised by the different priority level that the US places on art theft, compared to other countries. Despite the record prices being paid for historical and artistic pieces now, the penalties for their theft weren’t comparable. The trails that Wittman goes through trying to deal with and change the investigation procedures in these cases was very interesting.
But the points at which I was most interested in this story, in the memoirs of this FBI agent were when he described his reactions to the stolen treasures he tried to restore to their place in the world.
“This was my first antiquity case, but as I would learn, looters are especially insidious art thieves. They not only invade the sanctuaries of our ancestors, plundering burial grounds and lost cities in a reckless dash for buried treasure, they also destroy our ability to learn about our past in ways other art thieves do not. When a painting is stolen from a museum, we usually know its provenance. We know where it came from, who painted it, when and perhaps even why. But once an antiquity is looted, the archaeologist loses the chance to study a piece in context, the chance to document history.”
The order to the cases seemed a bit disjointed to me…it was hard to follow or remember where in Wittman’s career we were and if major events or cases had come before or after the case he is describing.
And the description of the events did seem a bit removed from Wittman’s emotions…except for a very personal event that happens near the beginning of the story.
In general, though, this book about his undercover life inside a world I know little about proved interesting and a change from most of the memoirs I’ve read.
Unfortunately this book spends most of its time building up to the ultimately unsuccessful recovery of the Gardner heist pieces. While it was fascinating to read an insiders account of the Gardner heist task force. It was ultimately unfulfilling, partially because so much other material on this case has been published and partially because you know from the beginning it was unsuccessful.
Rising from humble roots as the son of an antique dealer, Wittman built a twenty-year career that was nothing short of extraordinary. He went undercover, usually unarmed, to catch art thieves, scammers, and black market traders in Paris and Philadelphia, Rio and Santa Fe, Miami and Madrid.
In this page-turning memoir, Wittman fascinates with the stories behind his recoveries of priceless art and antiquities: The golden armor of an ancient Peruvian warrior king. The Rodin sculpture that inspired the Impressionist movement. The headdress Geronimo wore at his final Pow-Wow. The rare Civil War battle flag carried into battle by one of the nation’s first African-American regiments.
This is a smart, fast-paced and suspenseful memoir, filled with many facts regarding artists and their works and the varied histories behind the stolen swag.