Illuminating Modern Art Thievery

An Interview with former FBI Special Agent Robert Wittman
by Amy Groh

Robert Wittman joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1988 after a career in publishing. His training in art, antiquities and gems made him a specialist in the field of art theft and led to the recovery of $245 million of art during his FBI career, which ended when he retired in September. Wittman was instrumental in the 2005 formation of the FBI’s Art Crime Team and served as its director for the past three years, investigating cases of intrigue across the world. He has received numerous awards and speaks on the importance of protecting cultural property and how to avoid becoming a victim of fraud and theft.

When did you join the FBI?
I joined the FBI in 1988. I was in the publishing business and was transferred to a property crimes squad back in the 1980s. I went right to training in Quantico, [Virginia] and they transferred me to a truck hijacking property crimes squad. There were a couple of museum thefts that had occurred before I got here, and one of them was a crystal ball that was stolen from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Weighing over 50 pounds, it was the second-largest natural crystal ball in the world. It was owned by the Dowager Empress of China in the 1850s and was valued at over a quarter of a million dollars at the time of the theft. It was stolen right out of the Oriental Gallery in the museum. A Rodin sculpture was taken as well. It was a bronze. So those things occurred just as I got here, [and] I was actually given those cases.

As a result of the successful recovery and prosecution of the individuals involved in those cases, they decided they wanted to have me do the art and artifact cases that came in. Part of that was also because my parents were in the antiques business, so I had some background in the business of art. Not so much in the art history, but in the business of buying and selling, which, let’s face it, that’s what it’s all about.

I then went to the Barnes Foundation, which is a marvelous museum and academy here in Philadelphia—it’s world-famous—and I took a year of art history training. I went to classes and was able to recognize the differences between Monet and Manet, Cezanne, Renoir, Picasso, Moreau…

What precipitated your move from publishing to the FBI?
I always had an interest in it. I always wanted to do something for…it sounds corny, but I always wanted to do something patriotic for the country and it just seemed like the way to go. Basically the job of the FBI is to protect the constitution and to be the first line of defense against those who would attack it. I thought I had something I could offer.

How did your job evolve into what it is today?
They sent me to art school and art history school, and once the government invests in something like that, they make you use it. So because of that, I have a natural knowledge of the business of art, which is not something that’s common in the FBI. I became the specialist around the country for art and antiquities cases. They also sent me to GIA diamond school and I took a gems and gemology class at the Zales Corporation, so now I do jewelry as well.

How long did it take for you to get to your current level of expertise?
Is it a continual process? Oh yeah; it’s a continually evolving situation. That’s why I’ve had the greatest job. It’s because it never ceases to teach me new things. Every time a case comes up, whether it’s an American antiquities case or a pre-Colombian antiquities case or Iraqi-looted artifacts or Impressionist art or Renaissance art—it’s always something different. In order to do the job I do, I have to learn about those specific things in each case, so it’s always something new.

Tell me about your daily work environment.
I have an office in Philadelphia overlooking Constitution Hall and the Constitution Center—probably the most historic mall in the United States—where Independence Hall is and where the Declaration of Independence was written. In my office, I have three large picture windows, and I look down on the Mall. The Philadelphia Mint is across the street, with Constitution Hall on my right. It’s very inspiring when it comes to this kind of work.

One of the cases I worked on was the recovery of one of the original copies of the Bill of Rights that was stolen during the Civil War by a Union soldier. It was being offered for sale here at the National Constitution Center by an Antiques Roadshow appraiser who had gotten it from a pair of sisters in Indiana. So that was interesting, because being able to recover something like that while you’re looking at Independence Hall is just…it just goes hand in hand.

Do you have an “average day,” or is every day different for you?
Every day’s different. I mean that’s one thing that’s great about the FBI. I drive to work and I’m smiling because I never know what’s going to happen. It’s always interesting. There’s no average day. And this job is interesting because instead of just being reactive like a police officer, I’m also proactive so I can initiate investigations when I hear of something or see something, rather than just having to react to, say, robberies and things.

Can you tell me a little about being undercover and how that affects your life as a civilian? Undercover agents have to compartmentalize their jobs from their real lives. Quite honestly, it’s incredibly stressful working undercover because it’s not like being an actor, where you have 50 takes to get the right shot. In undercover work, you only have one take—one chance to do what you have to do—and in some instances, that could be a very dangerous situation where you’re risking violence. In other cases you want to make the case and you want to get to the end and get what you need to get, and you can lose that opportunity by not doing it correctly. That’s very stressful. And so the way I do it is I compartmentalize between undercover work and my real life. I keep them separate.

What has to happen for your team to be assigned to investigate a case? Does it just have to involve stolen artwork or does it have to be a large enough amount of money?
It has to fit a statute. There has to be a crime committed and there have to be elements of a statute that we can prosecute on a federal basis. $5,000 or more, and would have to had crossed state or federal lines—that makes it a federal violation. Or, any piece stolen from a museum. A piece that’s over $5,000 and is over 100 years old, or if it’s worth over $100,000 of any age. Those are the two statutes—one’s called “Interstate Transportation of Stolen Property,” and the other one’s a museum theft statute.

Growing up with parents who were in the antiques business, were you always interested in art?
Yes. I always enjoyed nice things. I always enjoyed the history.

What’s the hardest part of your job?
I would say the time away from your family when you’re working undercover.

The easiest part?
The easiest part is when we give material back that’s been stolen. What we try to do is rescue the past to be safe for the future. And when we do that, it’s the easiest, most pleasurable thing. I always say that the art in art theft isn’t the stealing, it’s the selling. That’s when people get caught—usually when material comes back to the market. At some point it has to be advertised, and that’s usually when the perpetrators are caught.

How has art theft changed throughout your career?
It’s become more violent overseas. Because of the value of artwork now, there’s a lot of thugs and common criminals who are getting involved in these types of cases. We see an increase in that, and that’s because of the value. Gone are the days when a curator would slip a piece into his pocket or an expert will go in and cut out a map. I mean, that still happens on occasion, but more and more we’re seeing violent, armed robberies, especially in Europe—not so much in the States, but in Europe, that’s very common.

It’s become common to have three to five of these cases a year. And sometimes we’re talking about thefts in the tens of millions in value. There are very few things in the world, when it comes right down to it, where you can steal [something] which might weigh five pounds and be three feet high, and have it be valued at $10 million. If you stole five pounds of gold, or diamonds for that matter, you wouldn’t get nearly that kind of amount.

Look at the Damien Hirst auction [in September] in Sotheby’s London where 200 works of art went for $198 million. This is at a time when the stock markets are falling and our economic markets are crashing. Artwork is way up there. It’s not being affected. It’s one of the commodities that’s continued to hold its value and is becoming more valuable.

Movies lead us to believe that art thieves utilize great technology when stealing things from museums. Do you see that in real life?
Very little. I see a lot of machine guns, automatics and guys tearing things off walls, breaking the pieces apart so they’re more easily transferrable.

Look at the Munch Museum theft in Norway a couple years ago where they tore the frames off the Scream and the Madonna. When they finally got them back, they had to do a lot of conservation work on them. Sometimes we get lucky though, and they don’t do any damage and have some respect for the items. The intent there is it’s better not to damage them—they’re worth a lot more. Sometimes they don’t use their heads when they steal these things, but sometimes they do, and like I say, it’s worth more. We get 95 percent of those pieces back—the multi-million-dollar theft pieces that go out come back—the Munch Scream, the Renoir, Rembrandt’s self portrait…The ones we don’t recover are the ones that are worth $10,000 or less, and that’s the vast majority of artwork that’s taken around the world. We say the art industry worldwide is between $3 and $5 billion a year. It’s not those pieces; it’s not those giant thefts that we’re talking about. Mostly it’s the [theft of small pieces such as vases] from Grandma’s house. Those are the ones we don’t get back because they’re in multiples and aren’t unique, so we can’t recover them.

You’ve been likened to a present-day Indiana Jones by several sources. How do you feel about that distinction?
I think it’s funny. I’m flattered. It’s nice, but I don’t put much stock in that. I just do my job. Can you tell me about the FBI’s art squad that’s being formed? There’s an Art Crime Team nationwide now consisting of 13 FBI agents stationed in different offices around the country who coordinate investigations involving art and art theft. It’s one of the proudest things I’m leaving behind in my legacy. Up until 2005, we did not have that team. I was one of the founders of the team. At that time, there were eight agents put on it and since then, because of our success—over $100 million in recoveries in the last three years by the team—it’s been upped to 13 members. That’s a real success story. The Art Crime Team is there to help investigate these types of cases and the FBI is putting more emphasis on trying to stop cultural property theft. They recognize the importance of cultural property to the world. a&s