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Priceless

The founder of the FBI’s art crime team writes of his life undercover in search of stolen art.

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Priceless:
How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures.
Robert K. Wittman (with John Shiffman).
Crown
325 pp., $25

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Writing about art theft, Robert K. Wittman – who founded the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s art crime team – paints a portrait of his former employer, and it isn’t a pretty one. In recent years, the bureau, along with the Central Intelligence Agency, has been criticized for valuing a lumbering and self-serving bureaucracy over results.

If there ever were an intriguing niche within the FBI, however, it would seem to be the one that Wittman carved out as the bureau’s chief investigator of international art thefts. But as Wittman details in his memoir Priceless (written with John Shiffman), the actual work is frustrating more often than it is glamorous.

As crimes go, art theft is especially sensitive because the stolen property is notoriously hard to sell, so the thieves eventually realize that the best option for them is to destroy it. Most stolen art is not recovered, and authorities speculate that much of the missing work ends up in a landfill somewhere. Such losses are almost uniquely wrenching in the annals of crime. Money can be reprinted, but once gone, a Monet is gone forever.

The son of an American airman and a Korean War bride, Wittman developed a crush on the FBI as a child when the family relocated to Baltimore. Young Bob heard the taunts leveled at his mother by locals at the same time that the bureau was beginning to emerge as a champion of civil rights. The idealistic Wittman joined up and soon found himself not only working art theft but also taking a year-long course, learning how to tell the difference between a Gauguin and a Cézanne and how to hold forth on palette, composition, and light.

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