Museum Crooks ‘Dis-Art-ened’ by Ex-FBI Agent
By Richard Carreño
As an ex-FBI special agent based in Philadelphia, Bob Wittman’s presence at a former crime scene isn’t unusual. The site, at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, across from Penn’s Franklin Field, might raise more than a few skeptical eyebrows, however.
As Wittman recounted last week, the Penn Museum, in 1991, was in fact the site of one of the boldest art heists in memory. And solved.
That solved part, according to Wittman’s retelling of his derring-do as Federal Bureau of Investigation’s first, full-time art crime investigator, is what distinguishes some monster art thefts from others. Just a year earlier, in Boston, thieves walked off with some Rembrandts, a Vermeer, and five sketches by Degas from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a private treasure house that’s akin to the Barnes Foundation. Quirky, defiant in its nontraditional showcasing, and a total reflection of its founder, Boston Brahmin Isabella Gardner.
The stolen Gardner museum art, valued at a jaw-dropping $500 million, dwarfed the Penn Museum theft, merely pegged at $500,000. (Wittman had a huge hand in working the Gardner case, as well).
Yet, some walls at the Gardner are still bare; Mrs. Gardner, ever the grande dame, ordained that only art she personally collected could grace her townhouse and gallery.
At Penn, on the other hand, museum administrators are still exuberant that their stolen objects, a 19th century Chinese crystal orb and a 5,000-year-old bronze of Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead, are back in their rightful places.
Anyway, according to the 54-year-old Wittman, who retired last year after 20 years as one of the world’s most prominent art sleuths, stolen art isn’t about monetary value. It’s about stealing history and a culture’s patrimony. All great art and historical artifacts are, in a word, ‘priceless,’ says Wittman, who was signing copies of his recently published memoir as a globetrotting art hunter. (He now runs his own suburban Philadelphia security firm, catering to art museums and insurance companies).
The book, published by Crown, is titled, not surprisingly, Priceless.
Wittman, founder of the FBI’s Philadelphia-based Art Crime Team, was sitting, appropriately enough, in front of the 45-pound crystal orb that he recovered, now reinstalled in its original place of honor in the museum’s rotunda. (A glass case, ahem, is new).
Just minutes before, Wittman was regaling a packed audience on how the orb was discovered and how that find again proved the rightness of one of his favorite investigative dicta, ‘Better to be lucky than smart.’ (Another is, ‘You can’t make this stuff up.’)
A burly six-footer, Wittman looks cop. Still, with a ready smile and infectious laugh, you can also see how Wittman over the years, while hunting stolen pieces from such disparate parts as Paris, Miami, New Mexico, and—one of his favorites—the New Jersey Turnpike, could finagle the confidence of the bad guys he was dealing with.
He also has an unpretentious, street-smart demeanor. (That aspect is marvelously captured in the ‘voice’ you hear when reading Priceless, thanks to Wittman’s co-author John Shiffman, a Philadelphia Inquirer Washington-based reporter).
Wittman got his start in art recovery by happenstance, as a rookie agent in 1988. Again, it was a Philadelphia institution, the Rodin Museum branch of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Stolen was Rodin’s iconic piece, the Mask of the Man with the Broken Nose. Besides being his first art case, the heist was remarkable for being the only one of the scores he’s been involved wherein a firearm was discharged. (No one was hurt).
The sculpture was recovered, following a tip. Better to be lucky than smart.
From there, thinking that art investigations might be a whole lot more interesting than busting an endless stream of drug dealers, Wittman decided to get a bit smarter about fine art—the difference between Manet and Monet, for starters—by enrolling in an enrichment course at the Barnes Foundation. (Wittman’s hagiographical appraisal of Albert Barnes, in the book is a passage, by the way, you can skip).
From there, too, starting in 2005, he developed the Art Crime Team, based in Philadelphia and now with 13 agents tackling what Wittman described as a $6 billion, illegal worldwide trade in art and antiquities. Why Philadelphia? For no other reason than that was where Wittman himself was posted and where he relied on officials of the Penn Museum, the Barnes Foundation, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art as resources.
According to Wittman’s tally, his investigations reclaimed more than $225 million in stolen goods. Cases were as far-flung as Europe, Philadelphia (the Pennsylvania Historical Society an the National Constitution Center also figure in his tale), and yes, the Jersey Turnpike, where in 1997 he negotiated for the ‘purchase’ of a 2,000-year-old indigenous Peruvian ‘backflap’ in solid gold. (This, too, was recovered, and was returned to Lima—after its only American public viewing at the Penn Museum).
And to Trenton, where thanks to a yet another tipster, he found the crystal orb, in the bedroom of a self-described witch. The woman had covered it with a baseball cap, thinking that ‘glass ball’ was worthless. You can’t make this stuff up.
In all, Priceless is an insightful look into the mechanics of art theft investigation.
Wittman puts the lie to any glamorous notions regarding art thieves. Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief? Pierce Brosnan in the Thomas Crown Affair? Hardly. In reality, they’re loser types, pumped up with ‘beer muscles.’
Is art stolen on commission? he was asked. Sure, said Wittman. But generally, not by rich art patrons. The wealthy can afford the real thing. At the end of the day, Wittman noted, insurance companies are the ones ‘holding the bag.’
Other maxims seem intuitive, though not always adhered to. One example hit home. Many years ago, while as editor at a Massachusetts daily, the house of the newspaper’s owner was robbed of more than a dozen French Impressionist paintings. The cop shop reporter filed the story, and we scheduled the straightforward report as an above-the-fold Page 1 story—that is, until the paper’s managing editor spiked the story.
The ME was being too politic by half. The next day, the heist story ran with a banner head. To hinder resale, the owner’s insurance company in fact encouraged widespread publicity. And the ME was taken to the woodshed by the paper’s publisher.
Rewards? These can cut two ways, according to Wittman. Sometimes they draw out a glut of wannabe tipsters, clogging the investigation with dead-end leads.
‘Stuff’ like this is revealing and riveting. When Wittman—cum Shiffman—dabbles into Wittman’s personal and family life, things start to lag. Some gaffes also fall through the cracks. Repetition runs rampant. The Revolutionary War financier is Robert Morris, not Roger Morris. Also, the book would have been a much better resource if an index had been included.
That said, you can’t make this stuff up. And Wittman didn’t.
Wittman has another talk scheduled at 7:30 pm June 22 at the main branch of the Free Library, 1901 Vine Street. Admission is free.
(Richard Carreño can be reached via Writers.Clearinghouse@com