Art is subjective. Some people look upon it and see beauty, while others might stare and think, I bet I could steal that and make a shit ton of money. Some might argue that there's no wrong way to interpret it, but most reasonable people agree on the unspoken understanding to look but don't touch. One of those reasonable people is Robert King Wittman, who during his 20 years as a special agent with the FBI recovered millions of dollars worth of art, including Rembrandt's self portrait and an original copy of North Carolina's Colonial Bill of Rights.
Since retiring from the FBI in 2008, he published his memoir, Priceless, started his own art recovery firm, Robert Wittman, Inc., and continues to speak on cultural and private property protection around the world.
A gentle-spoken man, Wittman doesn't seem like the kind of guy who would kick down your door and raise his voice for a Picasso. You could much easier imagine him slurping mussels on a European sidewalk patio or calmly shushing you for talking too loudly at a gallery.
VICE talked to Wittman about his undercover exploits, unsolved mysteries, and how the massively inflated art market could affect the future of art theft.
VICE: In my understanding, a love and appreciation of fine art isn't an FBI prerequisite, so what led you there?
Robert King Wittman: I went to the FBI in 1988. Just by way of background, I became the director of art theft division, and then a senior investigator of the National Art Crime team. It was there that I recovered about $300 million in stolen art and cultural property over a 20-year period. When I first went into the FBI, my idea was not to be in the art division, I had no idea about that. What I wanted to do was be on a cigarette boat in Miami harbor like Don Johnson. So I went to the FBI and when I got in, my first assignment was to go to Philadelphia, not be near any water, and work with 5,000 other policeman.
What was the first case you had?
One of the first cases was the theft of a crystal ball from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology. It was owned by the Dowager Empress Xixi of China. It was the second largest crystal ball in the world; over 50 pounds and valued at $350,000.
You never did find who took that crystal ball though, correct?
I suspect it was kids. There was a lot of construction going on at the museum, and this was back in 1988 when things were different. They'd prop a door open for a smoke and I suspect someone just left it open. So these kids would've come in, taken it as a prank, then didn't know what to do with it. When we did find the ball it was being held by a maid who had been given it by her employer. It was in her bedroom with a baseball cap on it because when the sun hit it, it was like a magnifying glass and would start little fires.
How did you know so much about the art business?
My parents were in the antiques business so I grew up in the art business. I watched my parents making deals. They had two stores in the Baltimore area, and as a result, I saw how the business worked. When we talk about art crime, it's not about art history, it's about the art business and how to make a deal. An art deal can almost be like a drug deal in the complexities of how they work.
Do the people who are stealing art and artifacts usually have buyers in mind or a connection in the market?
No, the interesting part about it is the thieves are better criminals than businessmen. In one case, they stole $40 million worth of paintings from a museum in Stockholm. They went in with machine guns at 5:30 PM, held people down, went around and stole the paintings, then set off two car bombs on the two main roads leading to the peninsula where the museum was. They made their getaway with a high-speed boat. It's intricate! It's a well thought out robbery. But they had the paintings for five years and didn't make a penny because they couldn't sell them. They didn't realize that the real art in art theft isn't the stealing, it's the selling. When we get these paintings back it's always when they come to market because they can't be monetized.
Who are the buyers fueling this art black market?
There's no black market. When it's smaller painting and prints that are not properly collected and identified, there is a secondary market. But you're talking about the hundreds of dollars, not the thousands. When you look at the million-dollar paintings, there is no market for them. What I've seen is they get stolen and these groups are involved in many different types of criminal enterprises so they're doing car theft, armed robberies, bank robbery, drug dealing, armament, all kinds of stuff. A lot of the time in Europe these paintings are used as get out of jail free cards, so when these individuals are caught, they use these stolen paintings as bargaining chips to bargain down their charges or their convictions.
Some of the cases you worked on began over a century ago. How'd you find a lead on something like the Bill of Rights?
The Bill of Rights was stolen in 1865 and what happened was it was offered for sale to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. They hadn't opened yet and somehow these individuals got in touch with them and offered to sell it to them for $4 million. Once they did some research on what the piece was, they found it belonged to North Carolina, so it was very easy. They called us and said we got a situation, there's a stolen copy of the Bill of Rights. Because it's government property the fact that they were offering it for sale was a violation. The point then was to try and recover it safely, not have it damaged. There were some threats made that if anyone was notified it could end up in the Middle East. You spent a lot of your career working undercover. How did you take on the persona of a shady art buyer?
I had the background. When I went in and worked with these criminals, I was the guy who knew what he was talking about. So as a result they had to rely on me. The reason I did the undercover work was not because I liked being undercover, but because it was the only way to get the art back, and it was the only way to get the knowledge. In most cases you need to prove that it was stolen, and to get that, they have to tell you. You had to record their story. Working undercover was the only way to get them to admit that they knew. Would you take on a different character each time or was there one pseudonym you went by?
It depended. Each case was different and each time we'd have a different way to do it. I was an authenticator for the Russian mob, I was a dealer, a stupid collector who has been defrauded. Did you channel any references to get into these characters?
Oh no, they would model after us! White Collar came after I was retired and those guys talked to me about that. Art usually follows reality. In fact my book has been optioned for a film. I feel like that speaks to our cultural obsession not only with art, but also with heists.
I think that's why the FBI was willing to support the development of the art crime team in 2005. I started the team because I was in Italy and I saw that they had 300 investigators for Carabinieri and that's all they do. There's 36 investigators in Paris, there's two full squads in Madrid, and basically in the US there were two guys, me and Jim. So I went to headquarters and said we need to start this team. They backed this because of all the international interest we had generated by doing all these cases. What's the longest recovery you ever worked on?
That's the subject of my new book The Devil's Diary. It was a diary written by the Nazi Alfred Rosenberg. He was the chief civil scientist for the Nazi party. He wrote a book called The Myth of the Twentieth Century, and the only other book that sold more than that was Mein Kampf. He was good friends with Hitler. They were together all the way through until 1945, when Hitler killed himself and when Rosenberg was actually hanged at the Nuremberg trials. Between 1936 and 1945 he wrote this diary, which was discovered by the Allied forces hidden in a German castle. Parts of it were used at the Nuremberg trials and after the trials were over, one of the prosecutors took it and wanted to publish parts of it but couldn't because it actually belonged to the national archives in the US. So upon his death in 1992, his papers were all donated to the US Holocaust Museum but the diary was missing. I got involved in the case in 2001. It took us 13 years to find it, and when we did, it was being held by an individual in Toronto. After working in this industry for several decades, how do you see art theft evolving?
It's getting bigger, and the reason for that is the burgeoning price of art. Criminals follow the money. Truthfully they're looking at the artwork and thinking it's easy to steal a painting if it's valued at $40 million. It's much easier to do that than other types of robberies if they could sell it and monetize it. There are always the newspaper articles, and the fan clubs, so people notice. Are there any unsolved cases that still mystify you?
The biggest unsolved case in the world right now is the theft at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. In 1990, two individuals dressed as Boston police officers went to the museum and tricked two young guards into letting them in. They took the guards, tied them up, and stole 13 objects of art. At the time, the paintings they stole were worth $300 million, today that's $500 million. After 25 years, no one's ever found one. That's the single largest property crime—not just art theft—in US history. There's a $500 million reward still out there for information. This interview has been condensed and edited. Follow Aidan Johnston on Twitter.