Robert Wittman, billed as the “FBI’s Indiana Jones,” addressed the Morning Forum of Los Altos March 18, telling true tales about tracking down art thieves.
His presentation, “USA vs. Art Thieves: True Tales from the FBI’s Real Indiana Jones,” highlighted his 20-year career with the FBI, during which he recovered more than $300 million worth of stolen art and cultural property.
Before considering the theft of art, Witt- man asked the audience to consider that the $30 billion art industry is larger than all sports combined. It is growing internationally as well, he added, especially in China.
Many laws may be violated in the art world, Wittman said, pointing to theft, illegal interstate transportation of articles worth more than $5,000, robbery, documentation and fraud. A law passed in 1995 made it a crime to own any museum piece worth more than $5,000 or more than 100 years old. According to Wittman, it’s very important, given the amount of artwork being sold these days on eBay, to obtain proper documentation and to know the provenance of a piece of art.
Art thieves, Wittman said, are not the rich, sophisticated people often portrayed in the movies, but rather ordinary criminal types. He showed videos of the actual process of arresting a criminal – with some tense moments between his saying the cue words, “It’s a done deal,” and the appearance of the arresting officers.
In 2005, Wittman was instrumental in creating the FBI’s rapid deployment Art Crime Team and instructed team members how to conduct cultural property investigations. He detailed his work in his best-selling book, “Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures” (Crown, 2010).
His final case with the FBI was his biggest challenge, Wittman recalled, the world’s largest unsolved crime – the $500 million theft from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.
Wittman described his work on Operation Bullwinkle, during which, cooperating with police in Stockholm and Copenhagen, his group recovered a Rembrandt and a Renoir.
The point is not so much recovering monetarily valuable property, Wittman stressed, as restoring cultural treasures to society as a whole.
The Morning Forum of Los Altos is a members-only lecture series that meets at Los Altos United Methodist Church. For membership details and more information, visit morningforum.org.