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Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures

Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures

3.8 102
by Robert K. Wittman, John Shiffman (With)

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The Wall Street Journal called him “a living legend.” The London Times 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


The Wall Street Journal called him “a living legend.” The London Times 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 Pow-Wow. 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 and 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 loners.  The smuggler who brought him a looted 6th-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. 

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Former FBI agent Wittman, who created the agency's Art Crime Team and pursued a lifelong interest in antiques and collectibles, goes undercover to hobnob with infamous art thieves. The ineffective, the stupid, the clever, and the dangerous; Wittman befriends them all, in order to betray them, a fact that causes him a certain amount of angst. Among other challenges are bumbling agency bureaucrats and government turf wars when attempting to recover stolen art abroad. A fatal car accident that Wittman was involved in early in his career shaped his perspective: "I understood that because someone made a mistake in judgment, it didn't make him evil. My newfound ability to see both sides of a situation--to think and feel like the accused--was invaluable." Wittman keeps the narrative interesting, and reveals himself as something of a renegade: "Under the FBI's strict undercover rules, you're only supposed to work one case at a time. I never followed that rule." Keep the lies to a minimum, he advises, and avoid working in your home town. (June)
Library Journal
The theft and retrieval of priceless works of art, historic documents, or artifacts can be a Herculean law enforcement challenge. With the creation of the FBI's Art Crime Team—led by 20-year veteran special agent Wittman—the reader enters a clandestine world of criminal activities of epic proportion. Writing with investigative reporter Shiffman, Wittman unfurls a web of intrigue and danger in this rare glimpse into high-level detective work that has resulted in the retrieval of more than $225 million worth of stolen artwork and documents in the past two decades. One of the recent cases solved by the Art Crime Team was the return of one of 14 original copies of the Bill of Rights taken by Union soldiers at the end of the American Civil War (this is depicted in full in David Howard's Lost Rights: The Misadventures of a Stolen American Relic). Wittman's successes as an undercover agent, extensive training in the world of art, and skill as a lead detective and investigator are well documented in this autobiography. VERDICT An essential read for those interested in art history and law enforcement.—Claire Franek, MSLS, Brockport, NY
Kirkus Reviews
Entertaining, surprisingly informative memoir of an FBI agent who specialized in art thefts. A dozen Scotland Yard agents deal with this massive, multibillion-dollar global problem. The French national police employ 30 agents, Italy even more. Since Wittman's retirement, the FBI employs no one. With the assistance of Philadelphia Inquirer investigative reporter Shiffman, the author recounts an eventful career as the FBI's sole art-crime specialist. He often worked undercover to trap criminals who, despite Hollywood's romance with art thieves, tend to be lowbrow and thuggish. No intellectual or art lover, Wittman began his career in Philadelphia in 1988; almost immediately, thieves struck two major museums. With luck, tips from informants and hard work-always superior to genius in tracking stolen art-he helped recover priceless Oriental antiques and a Rodin statue. His interest aroused, Wittman took art classes, although at the time art theft was not even a federal offense. This changed after 1990 when thieves stole $500 million worth of artifacts from Boston's Isabella Gardner Museum, the greatest property crime in American history. The author writes about several years of tortuous undercover work ingratiating himself with international mobsters who claimed to have the paintings. The investigation eventually fizzled, but police recovered several other stolen paintings. Readers will learn the mechanics of undercover work complicated by FBI superiors who were often as self-important and obstructive as the suspects. The digressions into art and art history are distracting, but crime buffs will receive a painless education while they enjoy a lively account of art thieves and the man who pursued them. Author tour to Washington, D.C., Boston, Philadelphia
Sarah Halzack
Almost every case [Wittman] recounts has enough intrigue and suspense for a Hollywood screenplay…Less exciting but no less interesting are the details of how this former salesman and journalist fell into such a unique job and came to excel at it.
—The Washington Post
From the Publisher
“Almost every case he recounts has enough intrigue and suspense for a Hollywood screenplay.”--The Washington Post

"Genius... Riveting.... Should be a TV series."--Los Angeles Times

"A rollicking memoir... investigative details dazzle... PRICELESS can read at times, not unpleasantly, as if an art history textbook got mixed up at the printer with a screenplay for THE WIRE."--The New York Times

"Riveting... superbly crafted... absolutely, hands down the best book ever written on art crime."--Associated Press

“I can’t think of a better title for a book than this one, PRICELESS.  Because this non-fiction story is priceless, a spellbinding narrative of an FBI agent’s journey into the crazy murk of what is perhaps the most fascinating criminal activity of all, high-stakes art theft into the millions upon millions.”--Buzz Bissinger, New York Times bestselling author of FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS and coauthor of SHOOTING STARS

"Entertaining...crime buffs will receive a painless education while they enjoy a lively account of art thieves and the man who pursued them."--Kirkus Reviews
"Wittman's memoir, PRICELESS, is a fast-paced, gripping narrative of stolen national treasures and those who traffic in them. An undercover lawman armed with wit and adrenalin, Wittman exposes the darkest corners of the art world and brings to justice the dangerous criminals who lurk there."--Laney Salisbury, co-author of PROVENANCE: HOW A CON  MAN AND A FORGER REWROTE THE HISTORY OF MODERN ART
"In one riveting sequence after another, Robert Wittman reveals the art world’s underbelly as it has never been seen, through the eyes of an undercover agent whose investigative acumen is matched only by his art-history chops. A true page-turner."--Benjamin Wallace, New York Times bestseller author of THE BILLIONAIRE’S VINEGAR
“With suspense, intrigue, and candor, FBI agent Robert Wittman takes us inside the secret world of stolen art as he goes undercover to solve some of the most notorious art thefts of our time.”—Ronald Kessler, New York Times bestselling author of THE BUREAU and IN THE PRESIDENT’S SECRET SERVICE
“PRICELESS is a gem of a story, part James Bond, part art history.  If Robert Wittman didn’t already exist, Dan Brown would have made him up.”--George Anastasia, New York Times bestselling author BLOOD AND HONOR, THE LAST GANGSTER and THE SUMMER WIND
"More realistic than THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, more entertaining than CATCH ME IF YOU CAN.  It's hard to believe one undercover FBI Agent rescued so many cultural and national treasures......but it's all true.”--Jack Garcia, former FBI undercover agent and New York Times bestselling author of MAKING JACK FALCONE
PRICELESS is a rare and riveting journey into the little-understood world of art crime.  A brilliant professional who sees both the big picture and all of its nuances, Wittman fascinates with tales of his daring adventures as an FBI undercover agent.  Demonstrating candor, humor, integrity, and sensitivity, Wittman strips away the myths, bares the truth, and tells it like it is.  He and PRICELESS are both precisely that--priceless!”--Andrea Kane, New York Times bestselling author of DRAWN IN BLOOD

From the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

Crown Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.80(d)
1050L (what's this?)

Meet the Author

ROBERT K. WITTMAN spent twenty years as an FBI special agent. He created and was senior investigator for the bureau’s Art Crime Team. Today, he is president of the international art security firm Robert Wittman Inc.
JOHN SHIFFMAN is an investigative reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer. He has won numerous writing awards and was a 2009 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 102 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I managed to get an advance copy and I could hardly put it down. It's a really terrific tale about the FBI's only art crime agent - a sharp, funny, honest guy with a treasure trove of amazing, compelling stories. There also are some deeply personal and poignant sections that give Wittman real depth. It's a great read - and it would make a great movie!
G-man2 More than 1 year ago
A buddy of mine in the business let me read his copy after he was done. We both loved this book. It is my Father's Day present to friends who aren't necessarily big readers because I know it will captivate them. Maybe they'll buy me a beer or two for reminding them about the joy of reading a good book. Priceless takes the reader deep in the underworld of art theft and illegal art sales, sharing true stories on FBI procedures, undercover operations, and the twisted minds of those who have stolen the art or artifacts. Some of the thieves are highfalutin, others, petty criminals. All know what they've done is wrong, but the temptation, the allure, of priceless, one-of-a-kind pieces is too great. So they steal them, cutting great works out of their frames, folding cherished, irreplaceable parchment, or canvas, even flags and war bonnets, then slipping away into the ether. The ill-gotten booty goes underground for months, years, decades, and in one case, even a century, only to pop up again in an effort to cash in on the heist. And when they pop up, they meet Bob Wittman, the greatest art detective in the world. A Rembrandt, a Picasso, one of the 14 original copies of the Bill of Rights, the actual flag carried by the first black troop in the Civil War...Bob Wittman goes undercover for the FBI in efforts to re-claim all of the above, and more. In bringing us along for this ride, the authors explain the value, history, and provenance (essentially, the chain of custody) behind each piece, providing a full, robust understanding of the history and value of each piece. Stuff I never even realized I held interest in. Cool book. Highly recommended. Great summer read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fantastic book! Excellent read for people interested in the inner workings of the FBI and criminal investigations, art and history, or just looking for some enjoyable summer reading. Wittman, the retired FBI agent, and Shiffman the investigative reporter who helped write the book, introduce the reader to the fascinating but true world of international art and antiquities theft. Although factual, the book is not weighed down with extensive details or trivial facts. As a piece of nonfiction it does however present a few important lessons for its readers: the FBI are burdened with internal politics and power struggles as with most bureaucratic organizations, art and antiquities should hold a more revered place in society and be better protected from thieves and unscrupulous dealers, and plans go astray both in life and criminal investigations no matter how hard we try. Get the book, you will enjoy it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a great book -- an insider's view to the fascinating and obscure world of art crime. Whitman walks the reader through a series of bigtime heists, including the Gardner theft in Boston, that he worked as the FBI's top art crime agent. It all unfolds like a good crime novel, full of bad guys who range from bumbling to sleazy to truly dangerous. We get to see how Whitman cultivates his undercover persona as a shady dealer in stolen art and antiquities. And he's refreshingly candid about the politics and bureaucratic hurdles inside the FBI that often hindered his work. The best part about this book is that you don't need to be an art expert to enjoy it -- the writing is engaging and accessible, a very quick and easy read. Whether your pasion is art, detective stories, or the inner workings of America's most famous crime-fighting agency, I recommend this book highly.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As engrossing as The Thomas Crowne Affair, but for real! I am interested in studying and watching eagles, and found the stories about the selling of Native American artifacts containing eagle feathers both interesting and upsetting at the same time. I finished the book a couple of weeks ago, and just saw the author featured on a CNBC "Crime Inc." episode about art heists.
L.A.Carlson-writer More than 1 year ago
Robert Wittman's story reveals the true character of people who steel high priced art, they are greedy and not much else. The heart of this story really is about Wittman's soul, the loss of a colleague and doing a dangerous job by coming into contact with thugs who wouldn't think twice about murder in the name of money. It gives some insight into the workings of the FBI. There is no violence.
Sir_Robert More than 1 year ago
An interesting look at the FBI and art crime. I found the book to be a good read but was a little taken that by the lack of details. About 50% of the way through the book I somewhat tired of it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Looking forward to the movie, Bob. As an art dealer, it was nice to work with you in recovering the Rockwell's and other stolen paintings. I enjoyed getting to know you a little more through the book. It was interesting to relive the adventures of the recoveries. With you being involved in so many more and living on the edge, it's a great read. I congratulate you on this book. George Turak, Turak Gallery
SamuQ More than 1 year ago
This story allows the reader to delve into the the secret world of art crime and the fascinating way in which FBI agent Robert Wittman goes undercover to recover much of the historic and iconic art and historic manuscripts stolen from museums and private collections around the world. I could not put this book down! Whether you enjoy a suspenseful thriller, a detective story, or a historic exploration of many of the great art heists of the 20th century, this book is a winner. If it is not turned into a blockbuster movie, I will be shocked! This book makes a great gift, because anyone who reads it will love it! It is very well researched and superbly well written! Not surprising, if you have followed Shiffman's investigative reporting for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
i loved this book..couldn't put it down once i started it...great reading for the summer..on the beach, vacation..would make a great movie..make a great gift..
Anonymous 6 months ago
Anonymous 11 months ago
You'll love this book, I promise. Full of mystery, intrigue, and insight into the most remarkable heists of our time. One of my all-time favorite books
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
" now we can talk"
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I found this book a bit of a snore and given reviews to the contrary, this came as a surprise. It certainly had its moments of interest, but they were far too few. The reader has to buy into Bob, because there is a lot of him in the book and all in all, Bob is a pretty pedestrian guy. Far too much minutia. A little like being cornered at a cool party by the most bombastic bore in the place. You're left longing for the cool part, while Bob drones on about history and provenance. I got the sense that Wittman still can't believe that he's gotten to run with the big dogs, so he keeps reminding both the reader and himself, ad nauseum. Bob doesn't just sit in his seat on the FBI plane. He "sprawls". Perhaps if I liked Bob a little better I'd have enjoyed this book more. But I didn't.
tedeo More than 1 year ago
This was a srprise book to read.Very insightful and well read. I happened to meet someone in the FBI who told me this is a fully functioning unit now. It is easy to read and a book you will not want to put down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As an artist I was intrigued by the inner working of the FBI art crime department. This did not disappoint. It's non-fiction, but is as interesting as a novel. LOVED it.
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Drew_L More than 1 year ago
If you were intrigued by this book and would like to hear and meet Robert Wittman in person, he’ll be in Boise on January 19, 2012! Boise Art Museum is bringing the author to town as part of their 75th anniversary year. Information can be found on Boise Art Museum’s website and Facebook page.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago