Entertaining, surprisingly informative memoir of an FBI agent who specialized in art thefts.
A dozen Scotland Yard agents deal with this massive, multibillion-dollar global problem. The French national police employ 30 agents, Italy even more. Since Wittman’s retirement, the FBI employs no one. With the assistance of Philadelphia Inquirer investigative reporter Shiffman, the author recounts an eventful career as the FBI’s sole art-crime specialist. He often worked undercover to trap criminals who, despite Hollywood’s romance with art thieves, tend to be lowbrow and thuggish. No intellectual or art lover, Wittman began his career in Philadelphia in 1988; almost immediately, thieves struck two major museums. With luck, tips from informants and hard work—always superior to genius in tracking stolen art—he helped recover priceless Oriental antiques and a Rodin statue. His interest aroused, Wittman took art classes, although at the time art theft was not even a federal offense. This changed after 1990 when thieves stole $500 million worth of artifacts from Boston’s Isabella Gardner Museum, the greatest property crime in American history. The author writes about several years of tortuous undercover work ingratiating himself with international mobsters who claimed to have the paintings. The investigation eventually fizzled, but police recovered several other stolen paintings. Readers will learn the mechanics of undercover work complicated by FBI superiors who were often as self-important and obstructive as the suspects.
The digressions into art and art history are distracting, but crime buffs will receive a painless education while they enjoy a lively account of art thieves and the man who pursued them.