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Robert Wittman's 'Priceless' Pursuit Of Stolen Art

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.

Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures
By Robert Wittman
Hardcover, 336 pages
Crown
List price: $25

Read An Excerpt

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 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in 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 antiquities.

His memoir, with writer John Shiffman, is called "Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures." It's now out in paperback. I spoke to Robert Wittman last year, when the hardback edition was published.

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 Sweden.

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 happened.

Mr. WITTMAN: Yes, sometimes that's the way it works. Sometimes, we'd 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 let them see it, 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 what happens.

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 me.

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? (Unintelligible).

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 - 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 - 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 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 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 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 that point?

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.

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: We're speaking with Robert K. 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 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."

The FBI didn't have a stolen art unit before you got into their lives.

Mr. WITTMAN: Right, right.

DAVIES: Tell us a little bit about your own knowledge and affection for art.

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 didn't 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 an 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 a deal.

And so when I came into the FBI, 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 - 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 actual art history and recognition of art. And then they sent me to the GIA in Santa Monica for a -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 antiques.

DAVIES: And so you could sometimes come off to a criminal as someone who was an art appraiser, for example.

Mr. WITTMAN: Well, sometimes - 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 - 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 are illegal.

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 headdress?

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.

DAVIES: 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 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.

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, 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 minute.

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 5,0000-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 his house.

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. So...

(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 was.

DAVIES: 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: 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 deal?

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 as we 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.

DAVIES: Well, Robert Wittman, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. WITTMAN: Thank you.

DAVIES: Robert Wittman's memoir is called "Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures." It's now out in paperback. You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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