Robert Wittman: what my FBI career taught me about art crime


Picture by Scott Davidson. For full credit see end of article.

Robert Wittman founded and ran the FBI’s National Art Crime Team and now works privately in the same field. He gave Private Art Investor an insight into the shady world of theft and forgery.

 Working undercover in the dark and often dangerous world of art crime was par for the course for Robert Wittman for over 20 years. During his time as the senior investigator and founder of the FBI’s National Art Crime Team, he recovered about $300 million of stolen art and cultural property in 20 different countries. Now running his own art recovery, security and protection business, he is frequently called upon to advise collectors on the pitfalls that can come from owning expensive works of art.

A popular misconception about art thieves is that they are art specialists. More commonly, Wittman has found that they engage in a broad range of criminal activities, and typically steal a piece of art without knowing how to dispose of it.

“There are very few, if any, art thieves. At the FBI we used to call it a gateway crime: these individuals would be doing many more things – they would be involved in armed robbery, they’d be doing car theft, drug sales, arms trafficking and they just happen to do an art theft.”

Naturally this made Wittman’s work for the FBI dangerous, but his  personal background in the art world (his parents were antiques dealers) and the specialist training provided by the FBI meant that he was well-equipped to stay one step ahead. Often the key was to bide his time and wait for a painting to resurface.

“Some of the biggest lessons I learnt were to never give up, and to be patient.  The hardest thing for people in my profession is often that they are very impatient, they want to jump right into the fray, but sometimes it’s good to be patient and let things play out to a certain degree in order to get the best result.”

The problem for many thieves is that they are attracted by headlines trumpeting the value of work by artists such as Picasso, and they mistakenly think that if they steal one of his works, they will be able to sell it for a similar price to those publicised.

“They don’t realise that the thing that makes a piece of artwork of good value to anybody is that it has to have good title, and if you have stolen property you don’t have the title, so it’s worthless. A car thief can chop a car up, sell the parts and make more money than the car was worth. You can’t chop up a painting. They don’t think about that before they steal it and then they’re stuck with it – it’s an albatross round their neck while they try to get rid of this thing, trying to work out how to monetise the loot.”

Many people think that there are secretive collectors who build up collections of stolen work. Wittman calls this the “Dr.No theory”, after the James bond film of that title included just such a character. In reality, he says, such buyers are almost non-existent.

“People imagine there’s a villain somewhere who has all the stolen Picassos and Renoirs. In reality, even if you could illicitly buy a $20m dollar painting for 5% of its value, that’s still a lot of money – and why would anyone who’s got a million dollars to spend want to put themselves in a position of having stolen property, creating a problem for their heirs, and to never be able to sell the object or show it to anyone – it goes against the grain of collectors.”

The issue of title and provenance is also highly relevant in another branch of art crime: forgery. Wittman says this is a very widespread problem, because anything of value can be faked. These days a quick search of the internet is enough to turn up artists in China who will copy any painting you ask them to. The real problem emerges, of course, when a copy is passed off as a genuine piece by a famous artist. Rothko, Pollock, Picasso, Dali, Miro and Chagall are all names that are frequently faked.

Collectors are vulnerable to such forgeries when they start bargain hunting, warns Wittman.

“If a collector sticks to well-known paintings with good provenance, listed in catalogue with the name of the artist, and buys from the proper sources or sources that will stand behind the sale, they’re going to be ok. It’s when they try to make a deal, try to ‘get lucky’, that’s when you have a problem.”

A good rule of thumb, he says, is to ensure the deal passes the “smell test.”

“It’s got to smell right: the provenance has got to be correct, there’s got to be a history of the piece, and you should stay away from things that have never been seen before.  Is it possible that somewhere there’s a Jackson Pollock that nobody’s seen? Of course it is, but if you find it and there’s no history to it, how do you prove he did it?  The paints he used are still available; the old canvas from that time is still available. You may be able to say there’s nothing wrong with the painting but that doesn’t mean it’s right.”

Wittman may no longer work for the FBI but his legacy is a strong art crime team that has doubled in size since he established it in 2005. Meanwhile, he continues to fight – and prevent – art crime through his company, Robert Wittman Inc. He has also written a book on his experience, titled Priceless: How I went undercover to rescue the world’s stolen treasures.

“The biggest achievement for me personally has been founding the FBI National Art Team and the fact that it’s still in existence seven years after I left,” he says. “The US is the largest market in the world when it comes to collecting art, so it makes sense to have a specialist group doing that type of investigation.”



Picture credit: Scott Davidson/Creative Commons license.