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Robert Wittman's 'Priceless' Pursuit Of Stolen Art20:23

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This interview was originally broadcast on July 12, 2010. Robert Wittman's book, Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures is now out in paperback.

In late December 2000, three people armed with machine guns went into the Swedish National Museum in Stockholm and ordered everyone to get down on the floor. For the next 40 minutes, the thieves ran through the museum, taking two Renoir paintings and a 1630 self-portrait by Rembrandt — a painting valued at $36 million.

Simultaneously, two car bombs went off on the main roads leading to the museum, located on a small peninsula in central Stockholm. As the thieves made their getaway in a high-speed boat, police could not access the museum because the highways were completely blocked.

Swedish authorities called in Robert Wittman to help them track down the paintings — and the thieves who stole them. Wittman, who spent 20 years with the FBI, is one of the world's leading authorities on recovering stolen art and cultural property. After founding the FBI's Art Crime Team, he revolutionized the way the bureau tracks down criminals who swipe paintings and antiquities in high-profile heists around the world.

For the Swedish case, Wittman went into the field, posing as a crooked art dealer looking to swap cash for the Rembrandt. After weeks of negotiation, he agreed to meet the thieves in a hotel room in Copenhagen.

"I was undercover at that point as an authenticator for an Eastern European mob group," he tells Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies. "After about two weeks with the thieves who were still in Stockholm, we negotiated the price [of the Rembrandt] down to $250,000. We actually had $250,000 in cash in the hotel room. We were bringing it back and forth to let them know it was real."

In the hotel room, video surveillance was recording every move Wittman and the thieves made. Next door, a Danish SWAT team was waiting for a signal from Wittman to move in and make arrests. Wittman had to convince the thieves the money was good before the fourth accomplice finally brought the painting to the hotel.

"And at that point, we were able to recover that $36 million Rembrandt," he says. "Which was, probably the finest painting in the [Swedish National] Museum."

In addition to the Rembrandt, Wittman has helped recover one of the original copies of the Bill of Rights, two paintings by Francisco Goya, five Norman Rockwell paintings and Geronimo's eagle feather war bonnet. He is the co-author of Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures.

Copyright NPR 2016.

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