Huffpost Arts
James Grundvig Headshot

FBI Art Crime Team Founder Robert Wittman Talks Art Theft

Posted: Updated:

I met the retired lead agent and founder of the FBI Art Crime Team at a secret location in Philadelphia. It was across the street from a deep foundation project I worked on a quarter of a century ago that began to change Center City's skyline. Who knew that at the same time, Robert Wittman would be involved in art crime cases that would transform the FBI's indifference towards art as a low-level property crime, a sleepy affair with little bang for the buck.

For Wittman, the interview was an opportunity to hit the pause button on his new career as a private art crime consultant and investigator, and reflect on when he first arrived to Philadelphia in 1988 at the local FBI office. It would be another sixteen years before Robert Wittman formed the FBI's Art Crime Team, a loosely knit unit led by Wittman, who was the only full-time special agent, along with an administrator in Lynn Richardson and eight part-time agents that Robert Wittman would train to be stationed across the country.

In the late 80s, art prices exploded in value with the sales of two van Gogh masterpieces -- Irises and Sunflowers -- that forever changed the value of modern, post-modern and Impressionist art from valuable to obscene, with the skyrocketing prices surviving the downturns of multiple recessions from the early 90s to the 2008 financial crisis. Van Gogh paintings that were valued at 30 to 40 million then, would fetch well over $100 million today in the open market.

"A Warhol just sold for 105 million," Wittman confided in me with a bit of a surprised look. "A Warhol?" he mouthed.

Yes, Andy Warhol was an American icon, a legendary New York artist, but to the international art world, and Wittman and I, he was no van Gogh. To the art auction houses, Warhol and other lesser talents boil down to one common denominator: money. And money, driven by the all too human flaws of greed, lust and hubris, is the juice that drives the auctions and art and antique collectibles markets with the international code for art crime that transcends cultures and languages.

With the escalation of art valuations, the northeast United States became the epicenter of criminal endeavors to steal and forge art, which, over the past few decades, became bolder and more spectacular due to the rising prices.

Philadelphia, the Center of American History

Being sandwiched between Washington, D.C., and New York along the I-95 corridor, and in the shadow of those hubs of national news and power, Philadelphia is the center of American history, as well as art. It's home to America's most impressive private art collection in the Barnes Foundation, a Rodin Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Historical Society of Philadelphia (HSP), which houses over 15 million manuscripts and troves of priceless artifacts -- spanning all of American history with war items, uniforms, weapons and other collectibles. In fact, HSP was one of several local, two-decades-old crimes that Robert Wittman solved. Another was the theft of Rodin's Mask of the Man with the Broken Nose by a 24-year-old thug with a small caliber gun.

The HSP, like most museums due to the size of their collections, have a trouble conducting inventories on items they hold in storage. Today, that should change with technology -- from bar codes and RF tags, to metadata images and scalable databases in cloud computing. Still, to do that would take a huge undertaking of resources, time and money to complete.

For Robert Wittman and future Art Crime Team special agents, Philadelphia became an education center. In particular, Wittman found Barnes' impressive collection as the ideal lab in which to teach agents then, and his clients today, how not to so much as spot a forgery, but to learn about art and appreciate its value to society. The Barnes Foundation is home to more than 70 Cezanne paintings, dozens of van Gogh, Monet, Degas and other works of Impressionist art. In the 1920s, it was the way Barnes arranged the paintings. He put what seemed to be odd pairings on the surface, but when looked at through the lens of art the paintings from different artists and different eras, weren't haphazardly displayed to be eclectic, but to compare shapes and contrast colors.

In Barnes' will, like that with other private collectors of stature, such as his late peer in Isabella Stewart Gardner, his paintings would remain in the exact position on the walls, with the exact pairings against other paintings long after his death. The artwork crowded on Barnes' walls was no accident; they were thought out by a true art connoisseur.

"The Barnes Collection surpasses Isabella Gardner's art collection, valued at 30-40 billion. It's not even close. Although Isabella did try to compete with him," Wittman said.

The Gardner Heist

Two events that erupted in 1990 forever changed Wittman's, and America's, outlook regarding art crime. The former was a dreadful, painstaking experience. The latter was a pivotal moment in how art crime would be viewed by law enforcement, the media and the American public.

A car accident with Robert Wittman at the wheel in a South Jersey suburb would take the life of his friend and FBI Special Agent Denis Bozella. As if his four broken ribs, the guilt, grief and loss of his friend weren't enough, a prosecutor went through with a case he knew he would lose in court. The ordeal by trial, drawn out over five years for Wittman to clear his name, became the impetus to dedicate his career in solving art crime, which is what he considers to be crimes against society, history and the heritages of people.

A decade later, it would also place the agent in an even more special role, as he became the FBI's pointman in dealing with grief victims, primarily families suffering traumatic loss in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. At the time, that was hard on Wittman, the person, but it became valuable when he would begin to investigate and solve international art crime cases and go undercover as "Bob Clay," art broker and financier. The grief counseling -- "All I had to offer was empathy" -- and his own loss allowed him to see the other side of the good, bad and ugly in people, and put him in the perps' shoes and minds of master thieves.

On March 18, 1990, two robbers dressed as Boston Police gained access to the locked down Gardner Museum with a fake bench warrant. They duct-taped two young guards in the cellar and then spent an astounding 81 minutes rifling through the museum. They cut out ten priceless paintings -- a Vermeer, five Degas and three Rembrandts -- and three lesser art objects that included a gilded Corsican eagle finial and a Napoleonic War banner. The latter two were no "red herrings," but a clue to law enforcement as to where the stolen bounty would end up: in the organized crime orbit of Corsica, France and Spain.

With little to go on except police sketches and the data from the motion-detecting cameras, the trail went cold, fast. On the 23rd anniversary of the greatest art crime in history -- valued at 500 million -- the FBI's Boston Office (not the Art Crime Team) held a press conference, announcing the reward for the recovery of the stolen art was 5 million, and that they had fresh leads on the case "in Philadelphia and Connecticut."

Wittman said point blank: "It's definitely not in Philadelphia."

That press conference wasn't anything more than a reminder to the public on the reward and that that the famous case remained unsolved. It also served as a smoke screen, as those paintings are clearly in Europe -- with Wittman confirming: "We know who they were with, based on the French police wiretaps of the criminals I dealt with."

That was 2006 to 2008. Or two years that Wittman as Bob Clay went undercover in a sting operation that can be found in detail in his New York Times bestselling book Priceless: How I went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures (Random House/Broadway Books).

Unfortunately, human nature intervened. "Too many chiefs," the French Police pointman told Wittman. "Solving the case by committee doesn't work," Wittman later wrote.

Like the failed launch of the Obamacare website, throwing more people to fix a poorly designed platform doesn't work. Same with an undercover sting operation. The sting teams need to operate small to allow for "flexibility, creativity and to take risk," he stated in Priceless.

The human side to the promising undercover operation-turned-debacle was the FBI turf war, infighting with the Boston Office -- they knew nothing about art -- the Art Crime Team and the bureaucrats in FBI headquarters in D.C.

The same problem emerged in France. The French split their police groups in two with a new undercover unit called SIAT, producing evermore "chiefs."

All of those competing factions, instead of working in harmony, wanted to micromanage aspects of the case, while clamoring to take credit for solving the biggest art theft case in history in a press conference that would never materialize.

Robert Wittman's investigation into the Gardner Heist led him to the south of France by the way of Miami. "Although we didn't solve the Gardner case," Wittman said, "we did recover four valuable paintings stolen from the Nice Museum."