- The Washington Times - Friday, October 15, 2010

By Robert K. Wittman, with John Shiffman
Crown, $25, 324 pages

If I were an art thief, I’d be glad Robert K. Wittman retired. A one-man band when it came to tracking and recovering priceless (hence the title) treasures, from paintings to eagle feathers to rare Civil War memorabilia, Mr. Wittman built the FBI art-crime team from virtually nothing to a small but world-respected unit. But whenever government officials staged a “do” to celebrate the recovery of a particularly treasured object - and pat themselves on the back in the process - agent Wittman was in the back of the room, out of the spotlight, protecting his cover of anonymity.

Over the course of his 20-year career with the bureau, Mr. Wittman (or “Bob Clay,” his pen name) recovered hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of art and antiquities. Among the many noteworthy notches on his belt are paintings by Monet, Pissaro and Picasso, not to mention Rembrandt and Rockwell, a sculpture by Rodin and one of the 14 original copies of the Bill of Rights. He also helped crack the case of a crooked expert on (is nothing sacred?) “Antiques Roadshow.”

Increasingly, as his reputation grew, Mr. Wittman was asked to help his counterparts in other countries, all of whom had far more support from their governments, especially in Italy, France and Greece, than did Mr. Wittman in his. Some of the best tales in the book involve delicate - and dangerous - operations that came to a head (not always successfully) in a well-bugged suite of a four- or five-star international hotel where Mr. Wittman, as Clay, tried to get the hard guys to incriminate themselves. (Yes, this would make a great movie. I’d cast the always-interesting Leonardo DiCaprio as Wittman/Clay, given his great job in “Catch Me If You Can.”)

Speaking of interesting, Mr. Wittman’s personal background is as intriguing as his eventual exploits. Here’s how he opens his chapter “The Making of an Agent”:

” ‘Jap!’

“I’d heard it before, but the slur from the large white woman with an armful of groceries hit me with such force, I stumbled. I squeezed my mother’s hand and dropped my eyes to the sidewalk. As the woman brushed past, she hissed again.

” ‘Nip!’

“I was seven years old.”

The scene took place in 1963 in Baltimore, his father’s hometown. His mother’s was Tokyo; they’d met in the last year of the Korean War. Of himself and his older brother, he writes, “We inherited my mom’s almond eyes and thin build, and my father’s Caucasian complexion and wide smile.” Of their mother: “She remained mystified by basic American customs, such as the birthday cake. But she certainly recognized and understood the racial slurs.”

A neighbor whom the 10-year old Wittman considered “the coolest man I knew” was a special agent in the FBI’s Baltimore division. That impression planted the seed that grew into a unique career. However, the road was anything but straight.

Robert Wittman’s dream of becoming an agent stayed on hold for years as he dutifully helped his father in a series of close-but-no-cigar business ventures.

“He opened a home-remodeling company, raced second-tier Thoroughbreds, created a college catalog business, and wrote a book on how to win the lottery.” An antiques shop called Wittman’s Oriental Gallery gave his younger son a background that later would turn into a specialty. After a decade of work for his father, Robert Wittman took the exam and became an FBI agent.

Sent to Philadelphia as a rookie agent in 1988, Wittman “… didn’t realize how fortuitous the FBI’s choice would be. Philadelphia is home to two of the nation’s best art museums and one of the country’s largest archaeology collections. The month I reported for duty, two of them were robbed.”

Over the next 17 years, until the FBI recognized his work by establishing an art-crimes team, Wittman/Clay worked pretty much alone, though an assistant U.S. attorney by the name of Robert Goldman (described to stingees as “The Gold Man”) often had his back.

Among the treasures recaptured in those years were Rodin’s “Mask of the Man With a Broken Nose;” the gold funereal body armor of an ancient Peruvian king; 200 valuable pieces stolen from a museum in Philadelphia by an insider; Goya’s “The Swing” and a Rembrandt worth $35 million.

Although few of the main characters resemble James Bond et al., the danger often was very real. The caption below the second-to-last picture in the book reads: “To ingratiate myself with a group of French mobsters offering to sell the [Elizabeth Stewart] Gardner paintings, I set up a fake black-market deal aboard a yacht near Miami. The man with me here is the Marseilles career criminal I knew as Sunny, who seemed unnerved by all the attention undercover female FBI agents gave him. Soon, his associates would threaten to kill me.”

Sadly, the book also recounts, over and over again, the woeful lack of cooperation between not just local and national law enforcement bodies and offices, but also those of the FBI itself. Not many chiefs want to take risks, but when things turn out well, as Robert Wittman’s investigations often did, most of them want the credit.

Mr. Wittman, although nicely modest throughout this highly enjoyable book, reveals not just a deep knowledge of, but also a clear love for, an impressively wide variety of art. He has been well-served by his co-writer, Philadelphia Inquirer investigative reporter John Shiffman, a Pulitzer finalist last year. Perhaps I should qualify my opening statement that if I were an art thief I’d be glad agent Wittman has retired. You see, he didn’t stroll off into the sunset to admire … the sunset. He opened his own international art-security company.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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