Art Detective: Catching Thieves and Recovering Stolen Treasures

Some people know him by his undercover name, Robert Clay, while others know him as former Special Agent Robert K. Wittman, founder of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Art Crime Unit. Regardless of the name you call him, Wittman is known around the globe by reputation, and for his investigative expertise in the fields of art, antiques, jewelry and gems. Dubbed "a living legend" by The Wall Street Journal, Wittman is a real-life art detective who has dedicated his life to recovering stolen art and other cultural property worth more than $225 million.

His debut book, a memoir titled 'Priceless -- How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures,' offers a behind-the-scenes look at his amazing and unique 20-year career as a pioneer of art-theft investigations for the FBI.

Eloquently written with a vast amount of detail and significant historical information, Wittman's book gracefully opens with his early desire to be an agent and how his love of art, history and cultures all converged in a series of serendipitous events that led to a life of jet-setting and rewarding work that no one had ever experienced and that many only dream about.

pricelessAcross the United States and throughout Europe, Wittman spent years moving among the cultural elite to help recover paintings by Picasso, Moya, Monet and Rembrandt, and antiquities such as battle flags from the Civil War and one of the original 14 copies of the Bill of Rights.

This page-turner reads more like a popular novel than a memoir of an FBI agent, and will instill in its readers a deeper appreciation for all things art- and culture-related. With engaging recounts of his many exploits, Wittman draws you into the secret world of spies, intelligence and investigations while infecting you with his own regard for other cultures and a higher awareness of just how valuable a work of art can be.

Q&A with Robert Wittman

Q. What would you say was the ultimate reason that made you desire a career as an FBI agent?

A. I was looking for something where I was able to do my own thing. There was no management of people in the FBI. You have your cases and you do what you have to do to solve them. Plus, I liked the idea of a secure job that could support my family and that allowed me to be patriotic.

Q. You say in your book that, "art cases offered a different kind of satisfaction" (pg. 62). What specifically was it about art cases that made them so attractive to you as an agent and so rewarding?

A. I saw these works of art as cultural property -- it has value culturally for a specific group of people, for a specific reason. The monetary value did not matter to me; I was in it for the cultural aspect. Plus, I was good at it and I could bring something to the table that no one else could. Recovery of cultural property is more timeless and people will feel the effects of it for longer. We're recovering history.

Q. What has been your favorite art crime case and why?

A. My favorite case is the one I am working on now, or the next one I will be working on. All cases are great for me in some way, but the one that I am most interested in now is the one I am involved in.

Q. What have you learned as an agent in the Art Crime Unit that you feel you could not have learned anywhere else in the Bureau?

A. It taught me a real respect for other cultures, a respect for history; it enlightened me that it does not matter who you are or where you come from, we are all the same. Art from all civilizations is about the same things: shelter, food, relationships, religion. Artwork can bring us all together as people.

Q. Why do YOU love art so much? What does it do for you that nothing else does?

A. I have a background in art partly because of my parents and because it is pure; it is not corrupted by anything. It's a great window into history. It is about whatever the artist was thinking about at that exact moment. It tells you about a specific period or experience in time. There is nothing else like it.

Q. What made you want to write this memoir? What do you hope your readers will learn from reading this book?

A. I wanted to tell the story to get it out there. This is the type of book that could bridge the gap between art and the popular culture field. I try to make it come through that I am nothing special, and that if you want to make it happen, these types of jobs are out there. You just have to keep trying hard and keep working and you can get these jobs.

Q. Do you have any advice for people interested in joining the FBI or in pursuing a career in art crime?

A. If you want to join the FBI, stay out of trouble; there are limits to what you can do and they will polygraph you. Study things like international relations, languages, and sciences because those are the kinds of degrees the FBI is looking for these days. To get into the art crime world there is no clear path -- start taking art history classes, do art security for museums and get involved wherever you can.

Check out Wittman's website for more information about his past art recoveries and his current work securing, and recovering art investments.

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