Collection management and security tips from former FBI man Robert Wittman


The most common collection management mistake made by art collectors is failing to keep good records. That is the view of art recovery, security and protection expert Robert Wittman. Formerly the founder and head of the FBI’s art recovery team, Wittman often sees collectors struggle to recoup their losses after a theft due to poor record keeping.

“It’s understandable: collectors are typically doing many different things at one time, and it’s hard to stay intent on chasing the deal while also remembering that record management is something that will matter further down the road,” he says.

Wittman aims to ease the process by keeping all the paperwork and record for his clients, but there are some simple steps that every collector can take to ensure that everything is in order.

“The most proactive thing you can do is to take good photographs of the painting both front and back – because the back of the painting can have as much information as the front,” he says. “Generally thieves don’t cut the pieces out of frames – they take the whole thing – so the back of the frame has as much info on identification as the painting does.

“If it’s a multiple – a vase or a sculpture, for example – then try to home in on something about it that is specific or unique to that specific piece. If it’s a print, for instance, then make sure you take a picture of the numbers and the signature as well. Focus on the things that make it unique, because if you’re not able to identify your property, you’re not going to be able to get it back.”

The other common mistake made by collectors is failing to install proper security in their homes. Wittman stresses that it is important to consider not just your ground floor but also your upper floors, because this is often where thieves gain access.

“No one wants to pay for the security cameras. It’s not as sexy as having your name on a Jackson Pollock but the point is that if you want to keep that painting, you need the security. A lack of security is the reason why there’s so much theft: there are estimates that the illicit cultural property market around the world is worth $6bn a year.”

Wittman says there are three parts to good security: first, there are devices such as motion detectors and cameras. Then there are procedures: it is no good having a state-of-the-art alarm system and nobody turns it on at night. Finally, you need to have the human resources to manage the security procedures.

“If you have that, you may have an adequate security system. If you don’t have all those three elements, you have a system that could be infiltrated.”


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Picture credit: Texas State Library and Archives Commission/Creative Commons license.