Former FBI agent discusses recovering priceless art

FBI Art Crime

During his 20-year career with the FBI, Special Agent Robert K. Wittman recovered stolen art and cultural property valued at more than $300 million, including one of the 14 original copies of the Bill of Rights.

Robert K. Wittman, the founder of the FBI’s Art Crime Team, calls his work, “‘CSI’ meets ‘Indiana Jones.’”

During his 20-year career as an FBI special agent, Wittman traveled the world to recover stolen art and cultural property valued at more than $300 million, including Geronimo’s eagle-feathered war bonnet and a Rembrandt self-portrait, which was stolen from the Swedish National Museum in 2000.

On Wednesday, Feb. 27, Wittman will discuss “Recovering the Priceless: The Proof is in the Undercover Operation to Regain our Heritage!” at 6 p.m. at the Penn Museum for a Year of Proof Lecture.

Wittman will talk about what investigators must do to solve a case and convict thieves. Law enforcement officials must show that criminals committed wire fraud, mail fraud, and theft of an interstate shipment or interstate transportation of stolen property.

“I’ll be demonstrating how you can prove knowledge through undercover operations, interviews, or through testimony from other individuals,” he says.

The most difficult element to prove, Wittman says, is that someone knew that the item was actually stolen.

In recovering a Rembrandt self-portrait, which was valued at $36 million, Wittman posed undercover as an American art expert for a European organized crime group.

He arranged to meet the thieves at a hotel room in Copenhagen, Denmark. After the thieves showed him the painting, Wittman's next step was to verify its authenticity. Using detailed photos of the painting from the Swedish National Museum, he quickly recognized the stolen Rembrandt.

In a suspenseful operation like something out of a movie, Swedish and Danish police were listening to the exchange in an adjacent room, and in a room on the floor above.

After Wittman paid $250,000 in cash for the painting, he gave the police the prearranged signal to enter the room. A few seconds later, Danish police burst through the door and arrested the seller and his two accomplices.

The Feb. 27 talk is free and open to the public. Reservations can be made at the Penn Museum website.

Originally published on February 21, 2013