August 2010 | Jeremy Dibbell

Book Review: "Priceless"

Retired FBI agent Robert Wittman's new memoir Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures (Crown, 2010), written with journalist John Shiffman, begins and ends, appropriately, with the biggest case Wittman ever worked on: the greatest unsolved art heist in history, by which I mean the blockbuster 1990 thefts from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Wittman suggests in the book that he (through underworld contacts) was probably within days or weeks of recovering the paintings several years ago, but that bureaucratic infighting and turf battles between various FBI offices and foreign law enforcement agencies blew the deal.

Reading the chapters in which Wittman recounts how this happened was incredibly frustrating, because if Wittman's version is accurate (and frankly he seems to have established some pretty serious credibility over the years), the Gardner art might be back where it belongs (about a half mile from where I sit as I type) and not languishing in some European gangster's storage unit (Wittman has said he believes the paintings are--or at least were fairly recently--probably in Spain or southern France).
While Wittman's account of his role in the unfortunately-fruitless search for the Gardner art comprises a fair chunk of Priceless, there's much more here. As the FBI's only full-time undercover art detective for many years (since his retirement in 2008, another has not been assigned), Wittman played a role in a whole slew of fascinating sting operations to recover stolen art, artifacts and documents from around the world. He recounts international operations to reclaim a Rembrandt self-portrait stolen from the Swedish National Museum, and the successful retrieval of an ancient piece of Peruvian body armor (robbed from a grave). We follow along as he tracks down a janitor who systematically stole more than $2 million worth of artifacts from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and discovers a stolen crystal ball on the dresser of a self-proclaimed "witch."

Among the other cases Wittman writes about are the seizure of North Carolina's copy of the Bill of Rights (see my recent review of Lost Rights for more on this), and the takedown of several sleazy Civil War memorabilia dealers. Each chapter is filled with fascinating details about Wittman's methods and techniques, his thoughts about the criminals he was dealing with and his efforts to keep art and cultural crimes on the priorities list of his superiors within the FBI.

Well written and absolutely impossible to put down if you're interested in this sort of thing. Wittman's stinging indictment of American law enforcement policy relating to art theft should be read by every prosecutor and judge (and his critiques should be taken seriously by those within the law enforcement community).