Famed Art Sleuth Robert K. Wittman Describes Exploits


Date: April 9, 2013

Place: Trabant Theater, Trabant University Center, University of Delaware


Renowned art investigator Robert K. Wittman described his exploits to an audience of 250 guests at Trabant Theater. Wittman founded the FBI’s National Art Crime Team and, during his 20 years as a special agent, recovered more than $300 million of stolen art and cultural patrimony. Wittman’s appearance was made possible by a collaboration between the alumni of the Friends of Art History and the undergraduate members of the Art History Club.

During his service in the FBI, Wittman roamed the world, often impersonating shady characters. He consorted with Corsican crime figures, Polish thieves, the descendants of a pilfering Civil War soldier, and even an unwitting housekeeper to retrieve many priceless objects, including a Rembrandt self-portrait, Geronimo’s eagle feather war bonnet, Goya paintings, Pre-Columbian gold, a 50-pound crystal ball from Beijing’s Forbidden City, and one of the original copies of the Bill of Rights.

Since retiring from the FBI in 2008, he authored the bestseller, Priceless – How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures, described by Randy Kennedy of The New York Times as a “rollicking memoir” that reads “as if an art history textbook got mixed up at the printer with a screenplay for The Wire.”

Today, Wittman presides over a firm that is engaged with international art recovery, protection, and security. He also has served as a member of the Department of State’s Cultural Antiquities Task Force. Wittman says that he does not miss the days when he carried three cellphones and had to remember what persona to attach to each. His undercover life gave way to palpable relief. “On my first day of retirement, I woke up feeling warm and happy.”

No longer in a shadow world of “stings,” Wittman has emerged as a public figure who continues to consult with the FBI, but also works with insurance companies, institutions, and private clients to locate and safeguard cultural property. “I can help a lot more people now,” he says. Wittman’s passion for this work comes from his belief that art crime has societal repercussions: “It’s not only about money. When cultural objects are stolen we lose our heritage and history. We’re letting our grandchildren down.”

In his talk on April 9, Wittman discussed some of his cases and showed actual video footage of sting operations. He also talked about the careers that exist in the field of investigating and protecting against art crime.

The lecture was followed by a reception and book signing at Trabant University Center. Support for this free event came from UD’s Allocations Board, the Friends of Art History, the UD Alumni Association, the Art History Club, CAPE, the Center for Material Culture Studies, the Art Conservation Club, the League of Historians, and Phi Alpha Delta.