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Missing 'Priceless' Artwork? Call Robert Wittman
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in this week for Terry Gross.
Our guest, Robert Wittman, spent 20 years as an FBI agent. He did plenty
of undercover work, wearing body wires and meeting criminals in hotel
rooms with suitcases of cash. But Wittman wasn't usually buying drugs or
guns in his sting operations. He was more often looking for a Rembrandt
or a headdress worn by the Apache warrior Geronimo.
Wittman specialized in stolen art and antiquities, and his efforts were
aimed as much at recovering the stolen treasure as catching the thieves.
Wittman founded the FBI's art crime team, and by the bureau's
accounting, he saved hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of art and
He has a new memoir with writer John Shiffman called "Priceless: How I
Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures."
Well, Robert Wittman, welcome to FRESH AIR. I thought we'd begin by
giving the audience a taste of what your life was like for years,
working for the FBI on recovering stolen art and antiquities. And I
thought maybe you'd tell us a bit about recovering a Rembrandt from a
heist from a Swedish museum from a robbery that took place in 2000. It's
such an interesting heist. Just tell us about the robbery itself first.
Mr. ROBERT WITTMAN (Co-author, "Priceless: How I Went Undercover to
Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures"): Well, that was an interesting
robbery. It occurred in December, late December of the year 2000, as you
said. And what happened there, three individuals went into the Swedish
National Museum in Stockholm.
They had machine guns. They put everybody on the floor, the guards, the
few visitors that were there, and remember, it's late in December. It's
around 5 o'clock. It's near Christmastime, very dark at that point in
At the same time, their compatriots set off two car bombs on the two
main roads leading to the museum, which is on a small peninsula right on
the water. So there's really no way to get there except those two roads.
The reason for that was to stop the police from responding quickly. So
they had about 40 minutes before the police could get there.
So the car bombs go off, they put everybody on the floor, they continue
at that point to run through the museum. They stole two Renoir paintings
and a Rembrandt, and the Rembrandt was probably one of the finest pieces
in the museum.
It's a self-portrait. It's done on copper, and it's the only one that
was ever done by Rembrandt on copper. It was done in 1630, when
Rembrandt was at the age of 24 years old. He actually used gold in the
paint to make it iridescent, to make it luminescent, so it glows at you
when you look at it. But they stole that piece, as well. The total value
of that heist was $42 million.
At that point, then, they made their way out of the museum, and as I
said, it's on a peninsula right on the water, in a harbor there in
Stockholm. And they made their getaway in a high-speed boat.
DAVIES: Right, so the cops are all trying to get through this traffic
jam caused by (unintelligible) cars, and away they get on the water.
Mr. WITTMAN: They sped away, absolutely. It was a very, very good, a
good scripted robbery. But as I often say, you know, many times in these
cases, the thieves are very good art thieves, but they're terrible
businessmen because it took them five years to try to sell the
paintings, and at no point did they ever make any money.
In the end, we ended up catching them, and it's because they were trying
to sell the Renoir and the Rembrandt for very little money compared to
what the value was.
DAVIES: Right, not easy to move a piece of art like that. Now, I wanted
to also talk about the moment at which you catch these guys because you
worked undercover, very often posing as a crooked art dealer or someone
representing a crooked art dealer. You're the one that's going to give
them a briefcase full of cash in return for the stolen art. And it often
comes down, as it did in this case, in a hotel room. Tell us what
Mr. WITTMAN: Yes, sometimes that's the way it works. Sometimes, weâd
work a cash-for-paintings deal. In this particular case, we developed an
informant who was out in L.A., and we worked with the Los Angeles FBI,
who did a great job on the case.
We ended up going to Stockholm and also to Copenhagen to work that case,
and I was undercover at that point as an authenticator for an eastern
European mob group.
After about two weeks of discussions with the thieves, who were still in
Stockholm, and again, we were in Copenhagen, about a six-hour train ride
away, we negotiated the point down to $250,000. And we actually had
250,000 in cash in the hotel room. And we were bringing it back and
forth to them see, to make sure they knew it was real.
So at the very last end, the last day, I told the thieves, come down
tomorrow, bring one person, bring the painting, we'll make the deal. At
that point, the next morning, we found out from our surveillance teams
in Sweden that three individuals were coming down on a train.
They took the ride down, and they had a bag, and inside the bag was a
square object the size of the painting. They asked me, should we take
this down now, should we arrest them? I said no, no, hold off, wait, see
After the six-hour ride, they came to walk to the hotel. Two people
stayed outside with the bag, and a third individual came back in to see
DAVIES: Now, if I can just get into the story at this point, you're in
there on your own. I assume you are unarmed, right?
Mr. WITTMAN: Right.
DAVIES: But there is secret videotaping going on.
Mr. WITTMAN: Absolutely.
DAVIES: You're dealing with criminals. You don't know what they might
do. They might kill you and take the cash. Where's your backup?
Mr. WITTMAN: We had a Danish SWAT team in a room next door, and they
were ready to go upon my signal through a video camera. They would come
into the room and make the arrest.
But you know, one thing we always did in the FBI, something we always
said in the undercover unit was your backup team was there to avenge you
but not to save you because by the time backup teams get into those
situations, usually it takes too long.
And, you know, it's not like the movies where, you know, if something
bad's going to happen, you know, the bad guy stands there and points his
gun at you and stands there and tells you about it for about 20 minutes.
No, if it happens, it happens very quickly because that's how it goes.
DAVIES: And in this particular case, you went through a run-through to
make sure everything was set, and you discovered a snag.
Mr. WITTMAN: Yeah, right when they were coming into the hotel, I checked
the key to the room that the SWAT team had, and the key didn't work. So
I had to run downstairs very quickly and, you know, with all the support
that you have and the dozens of undercover agents that are outside and
all the SWAT teams and everything, in the end, it always comes down to
the one guy in the room. So I checked the door again...
DAVIES: It's one of these little magnetic keys.
Mr. WITTMAN: They key, right, didn't open the door.
DAVIES: And the SWAT guys' key would not have worked.
Mr. WITTMAN: That's right.
DAVIES: You would've been there on your own if you hadn't checked.
Mr. WITTMAN: If I hadn't checked. So I went down and got a new key, came
back and handed it off to them and went back into the room, at which
point the individual came up. He had the â he wanted to look at the
money. He did look at the money. He said it was good.
So I said, go get it. Go get the painting and bring it to me, we'll do
this deal. He goes outside, he gets his two friends, and they run away.
And I get a call from the Danish police, saying what happened? What did
you say? And I said, I don't know. I said, I didn't say anything. I
can't understand why they would run.
And they said, well, do you want me to arrest them? I said, no, hold up
again. See what happens. Well, what they did was they went to another
hotel, they got a fourth individual, who had come down the night before,
and he had the painting.
So the bag that they carried was nothing but a decoy. Had we taken an
arrest at that point with that bag, we would've had nothing. But they
got the fourth person, they got the bag and they came back, and that's
when they brought it to my room. And at that point, we were able to
recover that $36 million Rembrandt, which was, as I say, it was probably
the finest piece in the museum.
DAVIES: Right, and you â since you're the phony authenticator, you take
the painting into the bathroom and said let me look at it real
carefully, and then the signal for the SWAT team to come in was what?
Mr. WITTMAN: Well, basically it was â this is a done deal. And so what I
would normally do in these cases is take the painting into usually a
darkroom and a safe room. And if you think about it, the only place in a
hotel room that's really relatively safe with a lock is the bathroom.
So I would take it in the bathroom, take a look at it, make sure it was
right. In this case, I'd had a chance to look at the back of the
painting through pictures, and I noticed that the clips holding the
painting into the frame were at a certain angle.
So at that point, I looked at the painting itself and noticed that the
clips were at the same angle. So I could tell he had never taken it out
of the frame. So I mentioned to him, I said this â you've never even
taken this out of the frame, have you? And he looked at me, he says, of
course not, it's a Rembrandt.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WITTMAN: So he showed me some respect for the actual artwork itself.
At that point, I made the signal. I went to the door. I had the painting
in my hands right at the bathroom door, and I looked over, and they were
having a hard time getting into the room.
DAVIES: The SWAT team.
Mr. WITTMAN: The SWAT team, yeah. It seemed like they couldn't get the
door open. So I started to reach for the door to try to open it for
them, okay, while the other guy â while the bad guys had their back to
me. And at that point, I guess the key did work because they did make it
in, and I immediately bolted out with the painting.
DAVIES: And the signal was we've got a done deal.
Mr. WITTMAN: We've got a done deal, that's right.
DAVIES: And you've been in this situation so many times, where people
that you have befriended over many months, suddenly, armed men burst
into the room, and they realize that you are indeed a cop, and they have
been had. What kind of interactions occur between you and the crooks at
Mr. WITTMAN: Well, you know, at that point, my feelings are one of, you
know, relief that it's over, okay, because we've finally gotten the
piece back that we wanted.
Many times, you know, it takes months and months of negotiations and
meetings and, you know, ingratiation to try to get the individuals to
work with me. But once it's done that way, there's a certain amount of
But in some cases, it's actually interesting because in some cases,
there is a feeling of being let down, as well, all right. And that is
because when you work undercover, and you do a good job, all right, you
have to identify traits in people, in your targets and whatnot, that are
human. If you don't do that, then you can never ingratiate them. You
can't become friends with a person that you can't stand.
So sometimes in those cases, you know, you see the good sides of people,
as well as the bad. And as a result, you know, you can identify with
some of those good traits that they have. And, you know, when you see
them get in trouble, and you know their families are going to suffer,
then you feel a little bit of pity in that situation, and you, you know,
you have to go live with that.
DAVIES: Our guest is Robert K. Wittman. He is a former FBI agent who
spent many years investigating stolen art and antiquity cases. He has a
new book about his experiences. It's called "Priceless." We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is former FBI Agent Robert
Wittman. He's written a book about his years recovering stolen art and
antiquities. It's called "Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the
World's Stolen Treasures."
Are there connections between the legal world of art buying and trading
and those who traffic in this? I mean, there must be some intersection.
Otherwise, nobody would ever...
Mr. WITTMAN: Oh, absolutely. The connection between the legal and the
illegal art worlds is that the legal world sets the prices. What I found
also is that these thieves, they go out, and they'll steal things that
are hot at that moment.
Just six weeks ago, there was a theft at the modern museum of art in
Paris, where five paintings were stolen. One of the paintings was a
Picasso, and just a few weeks before that, a Picasso had set a new world
record at auction at $104 million.
So you can bet your bottom dollar that the thief and the thieves who
were looking at those paintings, you know, they wanted one of those
Picassos to go with the grouping.
So, yeah, the legal world sets these prices, it advertises these prices,
and then the thieves who are reading the papers, they are watching
"Antiques Road Show," theyâre seeing these shows and these pricing
shows, and they know that these are the pieces that they want because
they're thinking that that's where they can get their most money.
DAVIES: And then if they steal the artwork, if it's particularly rare
and precious and well-known, who are they going to sell it to?
Mr. WITTMAN: Well, that's the big question. I always say that the real
art in an art theft is not the stealing but the selling because that's
when we get everything back, when it hits the market.
You know, these huge paintings, as I said, that were stolen from the
Museum of Modern Art in Paris, they're never going to be back â they're
never going to be able to be sold, you know, on the black market. People
who have the ability, collectors who have the ability to buy those types
of paintings, they don't want stolen property.
It's dangerous. It'll land you in jail. So when people always ask me
what is a stolen painting worth? I always say between five and 10 years
in a federal prison.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: Right. Well, so do people move stolen Picassos and Rembrandts,
Mr. WITTMAN: Not so much the Picassos and Rembrandts, but, you know,
there is a lot of stolen property out there that does not rise to that
Now, when we talk about that, I mean, items under $10,000 that are not
unique but still valuable, you know, vases, clocks, many different
items, collectibles, those pieces can be sold at auction and also at
flea markets and through secondary houses.
So yeah, that does happen, and that's your more common burglary. Of the
$6 billion a year that's estimated that's stolen in art and antiquities
around the world, you know, probably 90 percent of that is what we're
talking about, that kind of material.
The other 10 percent are these really high-value, high-dollar art thefts
from museums, and those are not able to be sold.
DAVIES: It also struck me that one thing that's different about your job
in pursuing stolen art is that unlike a drug deal or a murder, you're
not just trying to catch a criminal, you're trying to recover the
Mr. WITTMAN: Yeah, that was always my primary goal. You know, that is
different. You know, I was actually assigned to the property crimes
squad in the FBI in Philadelphia. That's where I actually was assigned.
And, you know, the goal there is to recover â I mean, is to catch
individuals doing armed robberies. It's local robbery, that type of
My goal was always to try to recover the artifacts. In fact, the first
case I was involved in was actually an armed robbery of a museum here in
â well, in Philadelphia where...
DAVIES: Now, that's unusual in an armed robbery.
Mr. WITTMAN: Yeah, in fact, there's only been two I know of in the
United States. That was the first one, it was the Rodin Museum in
Philadelphia. And thatâs the only one I know of where a gunshot was
An individual went into the Rodin Museum, pulled out a .25 Raven
automatic pistol. He put all the guards on the floor, and then when one
of the guards confronted him, he pulled the pistol out and shot a round
into the wall to prove it was real.
At that point, of course, the guard complied and laid right down. The
individual then grabbed the sculpture called "The Mask of the Man with
the Broken Nose" by Auguste Rodin, a very wonderful piece, and ran out
the door, got away with it.
But it was great that he shot the round because about four months later,
when we caught him on the street, he actually had the gun on him. And we
were able to do ballistics tests and show that the bullet in the wall
came from that gun. So it was great evidence to convict him.
DAVIES: How did you find the thief?
Mr. WITTMAN: We had gotten information. Usually, in these cases â many
times, these cases are solved through informant information. They get
offered a reward for information, and an anonymous person called in,
gave us an idea of who this person was. At that point, we were able to
go take pictures of him surreptitiously, put him into a photo lineup,
and then the guards picked him out and said that was the guy.
DAVIES: You know, in some ways, a stolen work of valuable art is a
little bit akin to kidnapping. I mean, you know, this is a huge trend
from a lot of companies in the world, employees are kidnapped. And
there's a whole industry that's grown up around negotiating the release
of hostages, which â and they never try a rescue, or they rarely try
rescues. They really, they pay and get the hostage back. Do we see a
similar thing in museums or collectors who say, we'll pay to get this
back, no questions asked?
Mr. WITTMAN: Well, you know, that's something that does happen. It
doesn't happen in the U.S. too often. It's illegal to pay ransoms in the
U.S. and to allow people to get away with crime. So, you know, generally
speaking, when were investigating a case with the FBI, anyone who was
involved would have to go before a grand jury.
So at that point, they have to tell a truth, and they have to, you know,
not be part of the actual operations, the actual crime. But when we go
outside the U.S., you know, different laws, different statutes,
different countries, yeah, ransom becomes an issue.
And even now, there was a time for, you know, for about 10 years where
in England, pieces were stolen over and over again and ransomed back to
the insurance companies. But they passed a law in the early 2000s, which
makes it illegal. It's money laundering now.
But in France, it's still something that's done. Switzerland, it's also
been known to happen. But right now, what happens there, it's not so
much ransom, the paintings are used by gangs as get-out-of-jail-free
cards. And it's not a ransom situation, it's a negotiation point because
these gangs are not doing simple art-theft crimes. They're also doing
drug-dealing, they're doing money-laundering, they're running stolen
cars, they're running guns. They're into all different theaters of
And then what happens is when they get caught selling drugs, they have
the paintings in the background that they had stolen from the museum,
and then they come back and say, okay, we'll give you these paintings
back based on a lower, say, sentencing for prosecution, or if you let us
go on this charge. And it's for deal-making purposes down the road.
DAVIES: Huh, did you see cases like that, where people got off or got
off lighter because they agreed to give back some stolen art?
Mr. WITTMAN: In Europe, yes, yes. Again, not in the United States, but
in Europe, yeah, we do see that happen.
DAVIES: The FBI didn't have a stolen art unit before you got into their
Mr. WITTMAN: Right, right.
DAVIES: Tell us a little bit about your own knowledge and affection for
Mr. WITTMAN: Well, you know, what happened was I never really thought
I'd be involved in the art and artifacts division of the FBI, if there
was one, I didnât even know there was one at the time. And there wasn't.
We started in 2005.
But when I joined the FBI in 1988, I had grown up in a household where
my dad was a Oriental antiques dealer. And he would sell Japanese and
Chinese artifacts, not artifacts but art.
And I grew up in Baltimore. He had a shop on Howard Street, and we
would, you know, we worked together occasionally on Saturdays, and I
would help him in the shop as he got older.
So I got my background in the business of art, which is totally
different from art history. The business of art and how to buy and sell
art has nothing to do with art history, okay. It's all about how to make
And so when I came into the FBI, as I said, the first case I was
assigned, along with my new partner, Bob Basen(ph), who was the art guy
in Philadelphia, was a theft from the Rodin Museum.
And he and I worked together on that. Once we solved that particular
robbery, we were actually given another one, which was the theft of a
large crystal ball, which was owned by the dowager empress of China. And
she â that was stolen from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of
Archeology and Anthropology. So we recovered that, as well.
After that happened, the bureau sent me to art school at the Barnes
Foundation, and I did a year of art history and recognition of art. And
then they sent me to the GIA in Santa Monica for a â Gemological
Institute of America for diamond school and then to Zales Corporation in
Dallas for gemology.
And once they send you to all these schools, you got to start using that
technique, that knowledge, and that's why I got into the art and
DAVIES: And so you could sometimes come off to a criminal as someone who
was an art appraiser, for example.
Mr. WITTMAN: Well, sometimes â usually a dealer, sometimes an
authenticator, depending on the specific type of artifacts I was looking
at. But again, the real knowledge that really helped me was the
knowledge of the art business because, you know, when I did a case â say
I did in a case in Santa Fe for six months, and I was undercover there
buying Native American Indian artifacts that were illegal.
And I didn't have to know a whole lot about that, but I did have to know
how to make a deal, all right. And so what I convinced the dealers I was
working with, they called it a Santa Fe Mafia in some circles because
there was a $50-million Native American business there in artifacts that
And what I convinced them was I was representing buyers from around the
world who were interested in buying these artifacts, but I wasn't real
knowledgeable. So I needed their help to make sure we got the best
material for these buyers.
DAVIES: And you got this guy to give you, what was it, a Comanche
Mr. WITTMAN: Yeah, at one point, we did get a Comanche war bonnet. It
had eagle feathers with a number of different types of decorations on it
that were illegal.
Another piece we got was a piece of wood that was carved into the shape
of a corn cob. And this was actually a corn god, and, you know, when we
get into the Native American artifacts and these sacred items, these
pieces are very valuable to the communities, communities that they
represent. And it was an amazing education to find out about that.
DAVIES: Robert Wittman's new memoir is called "Priceless: How I Went
Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures." He'll be back in the
second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.
Our guest is Robert Wittman, who spent 20 years as an FBI agent working
undercover to track down art thieves and recover stolen art and
antiquities. He has a new memoir with writer John Shiffman called
Let's talk about one of the cases that you solved and that you write
about in the book, a couple of items taken from the Antiquities Museum
at the University of Pennsylvania - one Egyptian, one Chinese. Tell us
about what was missing.
Mr. WITTMAN: Yeah. The Chinese piece was a wonderful crystal ball. It's
the second-largest crystal ball in the world. The only one's that's
bigger is at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. This particular one
weighed more than 50 pounds. It's a perfect crystal, perfectly round
sphere. It took 10 years to create, okay, in a tube with water and emery
powder, and it was turned constantly to make this sphere. And as I say,
it was owned by the Dowager Empress and was collected in the early 1900s
by the University of Pennsylvania.
That particular piece, and also a statue of the god Osiris, which is the
god of the dead, were stolen together.
DAVIES: And that was an Egyptian piece, right?
Mr. WITTMAN: Yeah. It was an Egyptian piece, yeah, from 3500 B.C. So
we're talking about this piece, the crystal ball and the god Osiris
being stolen together at one point. And, you know, we had no clues for
about two years.
DAVIES: Did they simply open the museum one day and find them missing?
Mr. WITTMAN: Well, you know, we never did catch the actual thieves
themselves, but we did recover the items. My assumption - you know, this
is my opinion and I don't know for a fact, but they were doing a lot of
construction at the museum at the time, redoing doors, rebuilding the
alarm systems, a lot of construction. And I know that the - some of the
workers were going outside the museum taking a cigarette break during
the day, and they would leave the door open, you know, prop it open to
get in and out. So I suspect that someone at some point went out and
left the door open, all right, and that's how the intruders got in and
stole the pieces.
Well, the next morning, we found what they call the wave(ph), which is
what the crystal ball would sit on. It's a silver sculpture that the
crystal ball sat on, and it was on one of the pylons on the South Street
Bridge. It was just sitting there. So, obviously, they couldn't carry
all this stuff. The Osiris was too heavy, along with the crystal ball,
to carry at one time.
It took us about two years. Finally, we cracked the case. What happened
was one of the workers at the museum went to a secondhand shop, and
she's walking through, just rummaging through, and she looks in the back
and there is the god Osiris, and she sees it.
DAVIES: This is just a coincidence of museum worker saying, hey, wait a
Mr. WITTMAN: That's exactly right. She had been there. She's a
volunteer. She knew the place, and it was a $15,000 reward offered, as
well. So she went back to the museum, you know, excitedly and told the
director. They went down to the antique shop and they made the claim. Of
course, that was the god Osiris. The piece was worth hundreds of
thousands of dollars. You know, it's a 5,000 year-old-statue.
So we got the, you know, my partner Bob Bazin, again, and I, we went
into the shop. We found out where this piece was being - had been bought
from. It was bought from a picker who was going around walking around
the area with a shopping cart picking trash, and that's what he did. We
found him, interviewed him, and we found out which house it came from.
We went to the house, and there was an individual there. And we knocked
on the door and we said sir, you know, we're here to talk to you about
the god Osiris that you gave to the picker. He says, yeah, about two
years ago I found it in my mud room just sitting there by itself.
DAVIES: My mud room, what did he mean by that?
Mr. WITTMAN: Well, he had like a little mud room outside of the back of
DAVIES: Oh, like an entryway where you knock mud off your...
Mr. WITTMAN: Exactly, into the back of his house which was set on the
back on the side on South Street. So we said well, did you find anything
else? And he said well, there was this lawn ball.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WITTMAN: He called it a lawn ball. And we - my partner and I said
you mean like a crystal ball? He said yeah. Exactly. And I said well,
what did you do with it? And I'm hoping he didn't throw it away. You
know, I was just terrified that he threw it away. And he says, well, I
gave it to my housekeeper. And we said well, why would you do that? And
he said, well, because she's a witch and she needed a crystal ball.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WITTMAN: So, yeah, we said okay, this is great. Call your
housekeeper. Find out if she still has it. Turns out she lived up in
Trenton, New Jersey. So at that point, my partner and I, we ran up to
Trenton, New Jersey and we knocked on the door, and she still had the
piece. And we went in and she said oh, yeah, we have it upstairs. So she
takes us upstairs into her bedroom, and there's a young lady with blonde
hair, very pretty, and she said, and here it is. And right on her
dresser, the crystal ball was sitting on a little stand with a baseball
cap on it.
Now, we're talking about, you know, the Dowager Empress of China's
crystal ball from the 1800s, worth maybe $350,000 at the time, sitting
on this young girl's dresser with a baseball cap on it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WITTMAN: She had no clue, you know, what it was.
DAVIES: And so in that case, no reason to doubt the good faith of
anybody you talked to, right?
Mr. WITTMAN: Not those individuals.
DAVIES: No criminal charges in this case.
Mr. WITTMAN: Not those individuals. No. We basically we could not prove
that anyone had any criminal liability at that point, because they
didn't know what they had. They didn't even know what the crystal ball
DAVIES: So as you imagine how they might have gotten there, what do you
Mr. WITTMAN: You know, my thought of it is that it might've been a frat
prank, you know, by some of the kids at the University of Pennsylvania.
Maybe they went in, grabbed these pieces knowing that they were very,
very popular and very high profile, took them out and basically didn't
want them and left them in the mud room when they couldn't carry them,
and that was it, just didn't want to be caught. And I think they just
dumped them. And thank God they didn't dump them into the river or
anything like that, because that happens as well in some cases.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Robert Wittman. He's a retired FBI agent who
spent many years tracking down stolen art, artifacts and antiquities.
He's written a book about his experiences. It's called "Priceless."
We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Robert Wittman. He's a
retired FBI agent who spent years working on cases of art and antiquity
theft. His new book about his experiences is called "Priceless."
You have to tell the story about the time the diamond buyer was involved
and you were going to meet him at a hotel.
Mr. WITTMAN: Yeah. That was an interesting one, too. There was a
situation where an individual went into a jeweler, and what he wanted to
do, he wanted to buy diamonds and he was trying to tell the jeweler that
he was working for the CIA and that he was paying his informants in
diamonds, with diamonds in Europe. So, of course, the jeweler became
suspicious and he showed him checks worth $15 million, and he wanted to
buy millions of dollars worth of loose diamonds. So the jeweler called
us at the FBI and said, you know, this is the situation. What's the
And, of course, as soon as we heard that, you know, CIA agents don't
carry identification. They don't have badges to say CIA on them, which
is what this guy was showing. So we said look, make the deal, and we'll
go do the delivery. So at that point, we waited a weekend, and that
Monday, I was the one who was going to deliver these $15 million worth
of loose diamonds in a satchel, briefcase.
And while I was discussing that with the individual, he was asking me
are you going to have that, you know, handcuffed to your arm? And I
said, yeah. That's how we usually carry them. I'll have the satchel
handcuffed to my arm for safety and security. And he said okay. So we
went up and we met him in a hotel in Philadelphia, and I met him in the
lobby, and he comes down. And it was strange. He was coming down from
his room, and he came off the elevator and he had a heavy coat on.
DAVIES: And the plan was you were then going to go up to his room to
make the exchange. Right.
Mr. WITTMAN: Yeah. We weren't going to go out. We weren't supposed to go
outside at all. He just comes on the elevator from his room with a heavy
coat on. That was very suspicious right off the bat, so we spoke for a
little while. I noticed he was starting to perspire, but he wouldn't
take his coat off. So then when he suggested we go to the room now and
go make the deal, I said okay. So we started walking towards elevator,
and at that point I called in the SWAT team that were sitting around
reading papers and whatnot in the lobby. And when he was arrested, he
actually had a pistol, which is expected. But he also had a hatchet.
And the plan was to cut off my arm up in the room and then grab the
satchel and jump out the window and jump into his car, which was parked
right underneath the window. And he had left a whole bag full of
bandages there as well in case he got hurt so he could bandage himself
up. So it was pretty interesting. I guess he had some pretty nefarious
ideas in his mind when he was going to do that deal.
DAVIES: So pretty clear after this came down that you could see that he
planned your murder and dismemberment.
Mr. WITTMAN: Well, I would think so. I would hope he'd kill me before he
cut my arm off.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WITTMAN: Oh, no. But, you know, those things happen. It was funny,
because the U.S. attorney I worked with, Bob Goldman, he prosecuted the
case, and I called him. I said, yeah, this is what he did. This is how
it happened. He got five years in prison. And Bob laughingly said to me,
you know, you should've let him hit you. We could've gotten over five
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WITTMAN: And I said, I don't think so Bob. Not a good idea. A great
DAVIES: You know, we were talking about how, in undercover work, you
ingratiate yourself with people. In fact, your chapter on this is
entitled "Befriend and Betray."
Mr. WITTMAN: And betray.
DAVIES: And you tell an interesting story of the case where you were in
Santa Fe working somebody who was dealing in illegal Indian antiquities
Mr. WITTMAN: Right.
DAVIES: And you actually busted him and then got this fascinating email
from him a couple of days later.
Mr. WITTMAN: Yeah, he did. He was an interesting fellow, very
intelligent, had a good family. And as I said earlier, you know, people
who engage in these criminal activities not are all bad. Okay, I mean,
you know, there are good sides to everyone. This guy loved his family.
He had good children. And, anyway, I got to know him pretty well over a
course of six months, you know, having dinner in his home and whatnot
with him, because he trusted me as a dealer.
Now I was doing, you know, undercover criminal deals with him, but - and
he was very happy to do that but, you know, he had good sides to him,
too. So after the bust went down, he actually sent me an email and he
said, you know, what can I say? I think he said in the email. Good job.
Good for you. You know, what can I say? He said but one thing I wanted
to tell you is that I was glad it was you because you were always a
gentleman about it, and I don't hold you responsible, you know, for the
And I wrote back to him. I said, you know, I'm sorry you had this
situation happen to you. You know, don't do anything crazy. You know, do
not hurt yourself in any way shape or form. Just get a good lawyer and
take care of your life. And that's what I told him.
In fact, he sent me an email about two weeks ago, and he heard about the
book coming out and that he was in one of the chapters, a reporter
called him. And once again, he said well, it's better that you tell the
story on yourself before somebody else does. So he said good luck to
you, and I hope you have a great book.
DAVIES: He's out of jail, I assume?
Mr. WITTMAN: Oh, he's out of jail. Yeah. Actually, though, you know,
after he went to jail with me - not that, you know, he actually got
probation on the case. After he got out and was done with that, he got
locked up again on another case. So...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WITTMAN: ...I guess, you know, that happens over and over again.
People come out and they just, sometimes they just don't learn the
lesson. They just got to go back and do it again.
DAVIES: Easy money is easy money, I guess.
Mr. WITTMAN: Yeah.
DAVIES: You know, one of the things that - it struck me as I read the
case is that sentences were not heavy for stealing some really important
works of art.
Mr. WITTMAN: Yeah. You know, up until 2002, there was not big sentences.
I mean, one of the biggest sentences we got was a theft from the
Historical Society of Pennsylvania, where two individuals were stealing
almost two-and-a-half million dollars worth of very, very important
In fact, that's the largest heist and recovery of U.S. Civil War and
U.S. Revolutionary War artifacts in history, right here from the
Historical Society of Pennsylvania. But in that case, the individuals
got 40 months in prison. And there was an upward - what we call an
upward departure because of the fact that 15 museums sent letters to the
judge at the sentencing time and said that this was a, you know, a
heinous crime against humanity and against the whole country in the
museum network. So the judge did an upward departure.
And it wasn't until 2002 or 2003, I think it was, that Sentencing
Commission, the U.S. Sentencing Commission added extra time for the
theft of these types of artifacts. And that was as a result of a hearing
that was done where they actually were able to see a war bonnet that was
worn by Geronimo that we recovered that was being offered for sale
illegally, that we recovered. And we showed them this war bonnet, and
they saw it and then, you know, I think they got the feeling at that
point that this is important material. So the sentences started getting
better after that.
DAVIES: One of the details that I love about the case of the stuff
missing from the Historical Museum of the Civil War artifacts is that
the first thing you did was say I want to interview every single
employee. The one guy who called in sick that day turned out to be the
Mr. WITTMAN: Isn't that always the way?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WITTMAN: You know, it's the one guy who's not there. And - but he
was the one that everybody in the museum who had worked there for years
told me he couldn't have done it. And he was the go-to guy. He was the
nicest guy there - had been there 17 years working there. They said it
was not way he could've been involved. We know this guy. So everybody
vouched for him. So, you know, at that point, I moved on.
DAVIES: And he was lifting stuff right and left and his explanation was
- what? I needed the money.
Mr. WITTMAN: Well, he needed the money. And what he would do for a
period of about seven years, one piece a week he would take it out of
the museum, and he would go sell it to this electrician whom lived
pretty close to him. The electrician just liked collecting. And that's
the closest thing I ever ran into with a "Dr. No" situation.
You know, in James Bond, the "Dr. No" movie, where Dr. Know is sitting
in his cave and he's got the paintings on the wall? Well, this
electrician, when I went to his house, he had a three-bedroom row house,
and he cut out one of the bedroom walls and created this fantastic
museum of about 200 pieces that he had stolen, and it was just amazing
to see. One of the finest, you know, U.S. historical museums in the
country was in this guy's row house.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: One of the last cases you worked on involved the biggest art
theft in history. In fact, I believe you describe this as the biggest
property crime in U.S. history, right? It's a heist from the Gardner
Museum in Boston in 1990.
Mr. WITTMAN: Yeah. It's the single-largest valued property crime ever.
And probably when it comes to art, it could be almost as well. I mean,
you know, the Holocaust and Nazis theft of artwork throughout Europe
during World War II probably, of course, would be more. But in a single
incident from one museum at one time, it could be the largest ever.
DAVIES: And what was the value of the paintings that were taken?
Mr. WITTMAN: Well, in 1990, two individuals dressed as Boston police
officers went in to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum after hours.
They put the guards - they tied them up, you know, handcuffed them to
pipes in the wall, and then for the next hour or so, went around the
museum and I believe taking out 11 paintings and a number of objects of
Two of the paintings that they stole were a Rembrandt seascape. It's the
only one known called "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee" and a Vermeer.
The Vermeer is called "The Concert" and it's considered a masterpiece.
It's the only Vermeer that's missing.
At the time, the heist was valued at about over $300 million. Today the
value is probably up around $500 million if, you know, if you could sell
these pieces on the open market with provenance(ph).
DAVIES: And you describe your work on this case in a lot detail and itâs
a fascinating story that we donât have time for here. But in the end, it
was very frustrating and it seems undermined by turf battles and
disputes, a lot of them within the FBI. This was a tough experience for
Mr. WITTMAN: Well, you know, law enforcement works together in most
cases and works very well. Sometimes, you know, there's different groups
within law enforcement that - Iâll never forget one colonel from the
Jean Dom Marie in Paris said to me, Bob, this is going to be a very
difficult case because everybody wants their picture in the paper.
And the problem was, you know, I didnât really care about that. I just
wanted to get the pieces back. And then I said to them, you can all put
your pictures in the paper all you want, just let me get the pieces back
first and then we'll be happy.
Yeah, it was a tough case. We did recover two Picassos in that case.
DAVIES: But not from that heist, from a different heist in Nice, right?
Mr. WITTMAN: From a different heist. Yeah, from the same group. We also
recovered four paintings from the MusÃ©e des Beaux-Arts in Nice, you
know, a Monet in Sicily and two Burgles. So we got a total amount of
about $70 million for the paintings back in the, you know, during the
case itself. But we did not get the two pieces, the Vermeer and the
Rembrandt that we were hunting, okay, from the Isabella Gardner Museum
in that case.
But what I do think, in my opinion, they do exist. In my opinion,
they're in France. And quite honestly, the - really the epic win from
that case is that we know that theyâre still in existence, theyâre not
destroyed. And that knowledge is wonderful. Because I honestly believe
in the end they will come back and that 94, 95 percent of the material
that is stolen that's of that quality and caliber does get recovered.
You know, so it's missing for a while, it's missing though maybe during
our time, but there will be people in the future who will see it.
DAVIES: You have a private consulting business now.
Mr. WITTMAN: Right.
DAVIES: And one of the things you look into is security. How well do we
protect our precious art and antiquities?
Mr. WITTMAN: Well, in the U.S. we do a pretty good job. Quite honestly,
it's a little bit easier in the U.S. because our buildings are newer.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WITTMAN: Quite honestly, if you go to France or you go the Spain,
the buildings are five, seven, 800 years old, very difficult to protect
those buildings. The new buildings here in the United States, of course,
are newer. We have more technology. We have better, you know,
infrastructure in the system, so we do a pretty good job of it. That's
why you donât see many of these big armed robberies here. They happen a
lot in France and in Europe because of that situation but they can get
away with it. But here, not so much.
What we do is we do museum site surveys for security and, actually, I'm
continuing on. I reached a point in the FBI where doing these
investigations, you know, I was kind of stymied by the fact that
everything had to be a criminal investigation. Well, a lot of these
investigations, although they are criminal, they are civil as well. So
now I'm able to do a lot more cases and I'm working for a number of
insurance companies and galleries and I'm actually out hunting down
stolen art, too.
Mr. WITTMAN: Yeah, still am doing it.
DAVIES: But they donât lead to prosecutions, youâre just simply trying
to get the pieces back?
Mr. WITTMAN: Sometimes they do. I recovered a Juan Gris painting that
was stolen from St. Louis back in 2004. I recovered it in March in West
Palm Beach. That particular case, the individual was charged, has been
charged with interstate transportation of stolen property. But some
other cases it doesnât work that way. They're not criminal cases. So,
yeah, they're missing. Maybe theyâve been missing for a long time and
they're in another country.
I was just in Romania trying to hunt down a stolen Chagall, so, yeah, it
depends on the situation.
DAVIES: Well, Robert Wittman, thanks so much for talking with us.
Mr. WITTMAN: Thank you.
DAVIES: Robert Wittman's new memoir with writer John Shiffman is called
"Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen
You can find an excerpt of the book and photos of the FBI's top 10 art
crimes at our website, freshair.npr.org.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
A Star Named Marilyn (But Not The One You Think)
(Soundbite of music)
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Marilyn Miller was one of the most adored and charismatic Broadway
musical stars of the 1920s and 30s. She also had a brief movie career
before her death in 1936 at the age of 37. Warner Archives has just
released two of her three movies on DVD.
Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz has this review.
(Soundbite of song, "Look for the Silver Lining")
Ms. MARILYN MILLER (Musical-comedy star): (Singing) Look for the silver
lining when e'er a cloud appears in the blue.
LLOYD SCHWARTZ: That was the voice of the great musical-comedy star
Marilyn Miller in the 1929 movie version of her first starring Broadway
vehicle, "Sally," singing the Jerome Kern song that became her theme
Miller often played Cinderella roles: Sally was a waitress and
dishwasher who loses her job but ends up as a Broadway star and marrying
Miller was one of the first Broadway celebrities I ever heard about,
though she died before I was born. My mother had seen her on the stage
and loved her. When I was little, she used to sing me one of the other
Kern songs Miller made famous, "Who?" â in which a series of questions â
Who stole my heart away? Who makes me dream all day? â is finally
answered by - who? No one but you. And she would point her finger at my
nose. So without ever seeing Marilyn Miller, I loved her too.
(Soundbite of song, "Who Stole My Heart Away?")
Ms. MILLER: (Singing) Who stole my heart away and who makes me dream all
day? Dreams I know can never come true. Seems as though I'll ever be
SCHWARTZ: Nearly a decade after her death, Miller figured as a major
character in a couple of 1940s biopics. One was the sappy "Look For the
Silver Lining," in which June Haver plays Miller, but gangly Ray Bolger
steals the picture as her friend and dance partner.
The other was MGM's all-star "Till the Clouds Roll By," a fictionalized
biography of Jerome Kern, who actually led a relatively uneventful life.
The dramatic climax is the tantrum Kern's young niece throws because
she's replaced in a show by Marilyn Miller â who's played by Judy Garland
Garland was especially memorable singing "Look For the Silver Lining."
(Soundbite of song, "Look For the Silver Lining")
Ms. JUDY GARLAND (Actress, singer): (Singing) As I wash my dishes, I'll
be following a plan, till I see the brightness in every pot and pan. I
am sure this point of view will ease the daily grind, so I'll keep
repeating in my mind. Look for the silver lining when e'er a cloud
appears in the blue.
SCHWARTZ: Two of Miller's three movies, "Sally" and "Sunny," have just
been released on Warner Archives, a new series that now has some 400
titles never before available on DVD. You can see that Miller wasn't a
perfect fit for film.
For one thing, she sings with a trained, almost operatic voice that
seems disconnected from her character's down-to-earth speaking voice, a
quality designed more for a theater, where vocal projection was more
important than in film, where amplified sound and intimate close-ups are
more suited to realism than theatrical stylization.
The primitive staging and camera-work with which Broadway musicals were
first transferred to the big screen further compromise plausibility.
Miller's dancing, though, both tap and toe, comes off better, especially
in her comedic numbers, and she's a touching actress. Her bright voice,
canny phrasing, endearing smile, and affecting tears can still light up
Ms. MILLER: All my life, as long as I can remember, I've wanted to
dance. There was an old woman who taught me how to first dance when I
was in the orphanâs home. Then later, when I was working in restaurants
and washing dishes, then as a waitress, I kept practicing all the time,
telling myself I'd be a great dancer some day. Then when I lost my last
job, I told myself I'd starve before I'd be a waitress again. I'm not
even a waitress here.
SCHWARTZ: Reading about Marilyn Miller, I found several surprising
items. The name Marilyn, for example â which Miller made up from her own
given name, Mary, and her mother's name, Lynn â had apparently been
quite rare until Miller's stardom made it one of this country's most
popular girl's names.
Decades later, Ben Lyon, a Twentieth Century Fox executive and former
leading man who co-starred with Miller and W.C. Fields in Miller's last
and best movie, "Her Majesty, Love," signed up another pretty blond
actress, Norma Jean Baker, who reminded him of Miller, and urged her to
change her name to Marilyn.
Both Marilyns had problems with their marriages and with substance
abuse, and both died very young â Monroe at 36 and Miller at 37, from
complications of a chronic sinus infection.
Marilyn Monroe's films will always keep her memory alive. Marilyn Miller
didn't live far enough into the movie era to appear in films that would
do the same for her.
DAVIES: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix
and teaches English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He
reviewed two films starring Marilyn Miller that have been released on
the Warner Archives label.
(Soundbite of song, "Who Stole My Heart Away?")
Ms. MILLER: (Singing) Who stole my heart away? And who makes me dream
all day? Dreams I know can never come true. Seems as though I'll ever be
blue. Who means my happiness...
DAVIES: You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at
nprfreshair. And you can download podcasts of our show at
freshair.npr.org. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.