Former Undercover FBI Agent Robert Wittman Chats About Recovering Million-Dollar-Plus Art

In 2005, the Federal Bureau of Investigation had sort of a rebirth, thanks to Robert Wittman, who formed a special division called the Art Crime Team.

"Up until that point, the FBI did not have a dedicated unit that had any kind of training on how to conduct an art-theft investigation," Wittman tells Hair Balls by phone. "Although art theft is a property crime, it's strictly a separate type of crime from, say, a bank or a car robbery. You wouldn't investigate the theft of a Chevrolet the same way you would do a Monet.

"First of all, a Monet is going to be very unique, it's going to have a very high value and there may only be a certain group of people who are going to be interested in obtaining that piece. It's not stolen to be utilized or to be cut up or stripped down. It's stolen for collectors."

Wittman recently wrote and released Priceless, a memoir that chronicles his 20-year career with the FBI that ended in 2008 when he decided to start Robert Wittman Inc., which specializes in the recovery, security and protection of art, collectibles and other high-value items. The book details Wittman's comings-and-goings as a senior investigator for the Art Crime Team as he cracked several cases -- like the recovery of the original, ratified copy of the 150-year lost Bill of Rights from North Carolina -- while chasing others that went cold.

One of the biggest cases that Wittman worked on involved the 1990 heist at Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. According to Wittman, when the two thieves (who were disguised as Boston police officers) took 13 paintings from the museum, the theft became the "single largest property crime event in U.S. history."

The investigation, which focused on locating stolen Vermeer and Rembrandt paintings, saw Wittman go undercover in Miami, Marseille and Barcelona. In the process, Wittman, who models his open-to-anybody "Art Crime Investigation Seminar" after the course that he taught at the FBI, recovered two Picassos worth $60 million that had been swiped in Paris.

However, after two years, Wittman had to call it a day on the Vermeer and Rembrandt investigation. "We didn't get them," he says. "It was frustrating."

The experience didn't affect his love for the job that he says was most excellent.

"Every case was different, whether it was a Native American Indian case involving a piece that was stolen from the tribe or pre-Colombian artifacts that had been taken from tombs in Peru," he says. "Every time you get involved with a case and work undercover, you have to learn about those items so you can speak intelligently about them...That's why it was the greatest job in the world. I was always learning new things and I was always allowed to walk in and out of different worlds."

At 9 a.m. Thursday, September 8, Wittman will speak for free at the University of Houston's Rockwell Pavilion, located on the second floor of the M.D. Anderson Library.

Then, at 7 p.m. that evening, Wittman will chitchat to the crowd at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's Brown Auditorium, 1001 Bissonnet Street, during a lecture entitled "Pursuing the Priceless: Stolen Art, Investigation and the Law." Tickets cost $10.

For additional info, check out www.blafferartmuseum.org.

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