Book Jacket Synopsis: “The Wall Street Journal called him a ‘living legend.’ The Times of London dubbed him ‘the most famous art detective in the world.’ In Priceless, Robert K. Wittman, the founder of the FBI’s Art Crime Team, pulls back the curtain on his remarkable career for the first time, offering a real-life international thriller to rival The Thomas Crown Affair. Rising from humble roots as the son of an antique dealer, Wittman built a twenty-year career that was nothing short of extraordinary. He went undercover, usually unarmed, to catch art thieves, scammers, and black-market traders in Paris and Philadelphia, Rio and Santa Fe, Miami and Madrid. In this page-turning memoir, Wittman fascinates with the stories behind his recoveries of priceless art and antiquities: The golden armor of an ancient Peruvian warrior king. The Rodin sculpture that inspired the Impressionist movement. The headdress Geronimo wore at his final powwow. The rare Civil War battle flag carried into battle by one of the nation’s first African American regiments. The breadth of Wittman’s exploits is unmatched: He traveled the world to rescue paintings by Rockwell, Rembrandt, Pissarro, Monet, and Picasso, often working undercover overseas at the whim of foreign governments. Closer to home, he recovered an original copy of the Bill of Rights and cracked the scam that rocked the PBS series Antiques Roadshow. By the FBI’s accounting, Wittman saved hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of art and antiquities. He says the statistic isn’t important. After all, who’s to say what is worth more – a Rembrandt self-portrait or an American flag carried into battle? They’re both priceless. The art thieves and scammers Wittman caught run the gamut from rich to poor, smart to foolish, organized criminals to desperate looters. The smuggler who brought him a looted sixth-century treasure turned out to be a high-ranking diplomat. The appraiser who stole countless heirlooms from war heroes’ descendants was a slick, aristocratic con man. The museum janitor who made off with locks of George Washington’s hair just wanted to make a few extra bucks, figuring no one would miss what he’d filched. In his final case, Wittman called on every bit of knowledge and experience in his arsenal to take on his greatest challenge: working undercover to track the vicious criminals behind what might be the most audacious art theft of all.”
Review: This is one of the best nonfiction books I’ve read in a long time. I first heard about Priceless after reading Stealing Rembrandts, where the work of Robert K. Wittman was briefly discussed. Both books deal with art crime, and both are amazing for different reasons. In Priceless, I really enjoyed the overall format of the book. Oftentimes, nonfiction books end up having chapters that are just too long. I think most books benefit from shorter chapters, and Priceless took advantage of this fact by dividing its 318 pages into 25 chapters. Each chapter focused on a particular art crime case that Wittman worked. The stolen item’s history was discussed, as well as the circumstances of its disappearance and the individuals behind each theft. The end result was a spell-binding book that simultaneously felt informative and captivating. Wittman and Shiffman do a great job of making the reader feel like they are in each undercover situation, running a gauntlet of emotions that range from fearful to ecstatic. Similar to Stealing Rembrandts, Priceless tries to unravel the mysterious circumstances surrounding the theft of 13 paintings and antiques from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts. As the largest private property theft in history, the Gardner robbery remains, to date, unsolved (for those who are unfamiliar with the crime, I recommend you do some digging; it’s a fascinating theft). Wittman relays what may have been the FBI’s best (and potentially only) shot at recovering the stolen Gardner works, and how bureaucratic red tape, coupled with strong personalities and an international arms race, may have prevented the recovery of the missing art in the early 2000’s. All in all, Priceless was a really excellent book, and I would recommend it (along with Stealing Rembrandts) to anyone interested in art crime or just looking for good nonfiction in general.