Art Beat: On The Trail Of Art Thieves

Oct 3, 2019

A Rembrandt painting recovered after its theft from the Swedish National Museum, along with $250,000 in "show" money the FBI used to trap the thieves
Credit Robert Wittman

During his 20-year career with the FBI, Robert Wittman recovered more than $300 million worth of stolen art and cultural property. He also helped prosecute and convict many of the thieves responsible. In 2005, as senior investigator, Wittman was instrumental in the creation of the FBI’s rapid deployment Art Crime Team (ACT). He’s been called the world’s most famous art detective.


Wittman recalls one of the biggest art heists in a Skype interview.

“It was at the Boston Museum. Two individuals went in dressed as Boston police officers on Saint Patrick’s Day night. They stole 13 objects of art valued at the time at $300 million. Today those pieces are worth $500 million.”

Wittman says those art objects currently have a $10 million reward for their recovery. Although that case remains unsolved, his successes include, among others, recovering a $36 million Rembrandt; the headdress of the Apache Chief Geronimo; and a long-lost copy of the Bill of Rights.

Credit Crown

“When you talk about cultural property at the FBI, we aren’t always talking about art,” Wittman says. “It’s also collectibles. It’s also documents. It’s books, and artifacts that are important around the world.”

Wittman has published two bestselling books: a memoir called Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures (Crown, 2010), and The Devil’s Diary: Alfred Rosenberg and the Stolen Secrets of the Third Reich (Harper, 2016).

Wittman now runs his own consulting firm, Robert Wittman Incorporated, an international art recovery, protection, and security business. He will speak at the Kalamazoo Art League’s annual lecture series at 7 p.m. on October 16 at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. The program is open to the public.

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