After 20 years and $225 million in art recovered, top FBI art crimes agent Robert Wittman to retire

December 20th, 2008

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Self Portrait (1630) by Rembrandt van Rijn; stolen in 2000, recovered in 2005 by a team led by Robert Wittman. Image via Codart

Via the BBC“It’s about saving the cultural property of mankind … Every country has a different cultural heritage and saving these things brings us closer together as human beings. When it comes to art, it’s visceral. It affects us in a deep, emotional way.” – Robert Wittman

20 years after leading his first major art recovery operation,  the FBI’s top agent in art theft investigations and recoveries is set to retire. By often posing as a crooked art dealer working on behalf of wealthy organized criminals, Special Agent Robert Wittman has played a key role in recovering $225 million in stolen art over his career, often going undercover to retrieve very high profile works of art.

His first assignment, in 1988, involved recovering the second largest crystal ball in the world, once owned by the Empress Dowager Cixi of China. The ball was stolen from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in the middle of the night. Within two years, Wittman recovered the crystal ball, as well as “Man with a Broken Nose,” a Rodin from the 1860s that was also stolen that year, impressing the FBI enough to install him as head of art crimes investigations.  Since then, 9 out of 10 cases he has participated in have involved some sort of undercover operation, which draw on what sources describe as Wittman’s considerable charm and his ability to blend into any crowd due to his average build and ‘average Joe’ features.

FBI: Top Ten Art Crimes
FBI: Art Theft Program
The invisible man rescuing art [BBC]
FBI’s Top Investigator Involving Art Theft and Art Fraud, Robert Wittman, Retires [ArtDaily]
Missing A Masterpiece? Call FBI’s Art Crime Team [NPR]
The Heist Meister [Art Market Monitor]
Stolen Rembrandt work recovered [BBC]

more story and images after the jump…

After armed and masked bandits stormed the National Museum of Sweden in 2000, making off with a Rembrandt self-portrait from 1630 and two Renoirs in a dramatic escape on speedboat, Wittman successfully led a multinational team in the recovery effort.  Five years later, Danish SWAT officers raided a hotel room as he Wittman in the bathroom, holding the centuries-old Rembrandt, which along with the other stolen paintings is collectively valued at $36 million according to the FBI.

Wittman’s career has seen him recover works by Old Masters such as Brughel and Goya, postwar works by Rothko, centuries old masks and artifacts from ancient Zimbabwe, Geronimo’s war bonnet and a solid gold Incan armor piece, among many other highly valuable works of art from many different cultures. One of his more recent assignments saw him investigating the link between sales of looted art in Iraq and Afghanistan and the financing of Islamic terrorism in those countries. Another assignment closer to home led him to retrieve one of the original copies of the Bill of Rights, stolen by one of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s soldiers and held in that soldier’s family for over a century.

Estimated at $1.5 billion to $6 billion worth of works stolen each year (some relevant art theft selections are pictured below), art theft is the fourth largest international crime, surpassed only by drug trafficking, illegal arms sales, and money laundering.  It has grown substantially in recent years, as pieces have appreciated considerably during the latest art market bull run. Wittman will continue to work on the lectures circuit and as a consultant for art security firms, while focusing on a book and spending time with his family.Wittman will also leave behind a team of 13 operatives on the FBI’s art crimes team.

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The Concert (1664) by Jan Vermeer van Delft, stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston; via Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

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The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633) by Rembrandt van Rijn, stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston; via Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

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Children With a Cart (1778) by Francisco de Goya y Lucientes; recovered by the FBI’s art crimes team in 2006. Image via DayLife

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A Lady and Gentleman in Black (1633) by Rembrandt van Rijn, stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston; via Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

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The Scream (1893) by Edvard Munch, stolen from Oslo’s Munch Museum in 2004, recovered in 2006. Image via Wikimedia