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

Robert K. Wittman , John Shiffman
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

June 1 2010
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. 

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“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

About 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.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining and educational Sept. 3 2010
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
In approximately equal measure, the author takes us through Mr Wittman's FBI employment history as an undercover agent as well as his personal autobiography, interposing interesting cases in which recovery of various pieces of stolen art or historical objects are documented, usually in undercover stings. As the author himself states, first the trust of the thieves must be earned and then the trust betrayed; thus the life of an undercover cop.
As most everyone will already know, the biggest theft of all, from the Isabella Gardiner Collection in Boston has not been solved; the theft took place in 1990, and the author devotes the most attention to it. Progressively returning several times throughout the course of the book, he believes that solving the Gardiner theft was tantalisingly near, but the combination of bureaucracy in the FBI and the French police organizations defeated the combined efforts of both organizations. The author retired, having not solved his biggest case.
An entertaining read, with various characters from the underworld (as well as the museum and dealer world) in Europe and the States to spice up the story, and an education as to some of the techniques used to solve cases as well as interesting information about the objects themselves.
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5.0 out of 5 stars great insight Sept. 25 2010
By Brian Maitland TOP 500 REVIEWER
Having an undercover FBI agent who specialized in art theft crime reveal the insight behind how the whole art theft world works may be folly for those assigned to follow him, but it sure makes for a great read.
I found the actual long slow process of tracking down stolen art, especially across borders and the way the mind of the art thieves and buyers work, very revealing.

The style of writing is very entertaining, and the author weaves so much of his life story outside of his work as an FBI agent.

Also, learning about how the Barnes Institute came about and how it evolved into a teaching center was very insightful.

This book will also give you an appreciation for art even if you never had one to begin with.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.3 out of 5 stars  194 reviews
58 of 63 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fun, exciting read June 4 2010
By C. W. Caspari Jr. - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Very much a page-turner. Wittman's got a lot of great stories to tell about why we should appreciate art, how some government agencies have a warped sense of priorities and of course the fascinating ways in which some of the most infamous property crimes in history have played out and his role in them.

There are suave characters, misfit gangsters and plot twists that can make you laugh or cry (depending on how much of an appreciation of art you may have - and if you don't have much of one, you will by the time you finish this book). Some of the "gangster talk" is right out of Hollywood; you wouldn't believe it if dialogue wasn't culled from bugged meet-ups and hidden video. But it's all real! And its told in a style that at times borders on gumshoe noir, which keeps the action lively.

Highly recommended for a fun summer read; I think anyone would enjoy this international thriller and might even learn something along the way.
41 of 49 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Perfect summer reading June 2 2010
By Sam Spade - Published on
Priceless has just about everything you'd want in a book, with appeal to all sorts of readers. In light of the recent art heist in Paris, this is timely and fascinating. Wittman's exploits do indeed read like a crime thriller, keeping the pages turning in a breathless fashion. I'll definitely buy more copies as gifts!
31 of 38 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and Factual July 11 2010
By Karie Hoskins - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
The most interesting elements of "Priceless" were the facts regarding art and art theft and the awe and respect with which the author describes the pieces he views and recovers.

"Americans, in particular, are said to be uncultured when it comes to high art, more likely to go to a ballpark than a museum. But as I tell my foreign colleagues, the statistics belie that stereotype. Americans visit museums on a scale eclipsing sports. In 2007, more people visited the Smithsonian Institution museums in Washington (24.2 million) than attended a game played by the Nations Basketball Association (21.8 million), the National Hockey League (21.2 million), or the National Football League (17 million)."

I was shocked by that fact. I was also surprised by the different priority level that the US places on art theft, compared to other countries. Despite the record prices being paid for historical and artistic pieces now, the penalties for their theft weren't comparable. The trails that Wittman goes through trying to deal with and change the investigation procedures in these cases was very interesting.

But the points at which I was most interested in this story, in the memoirs of this FBI agent were when he described his reactions to the stolen treasures he tried to restore to their place in the world.

"This was my first antiquity case, but as I would learn, looters are especially insidious art thieves. They not only invade the sanctuaries of our ancestors, plundering burial grounds and lost cities in a reckless dash for buried treasure, they also destroy our ability to learn about our past in ways other art thieves do not. When a painting is stolen from a museum, we usually know its provenance. We know where it came from, who painted it, when and perhaps even why. But once an antiquity is looted, the archaeologist loses the chance to study a piece in context, the chance to document history."

The order to the cases seemed a bit disjointed to was hard to follow or remember where in Wittman's career we were and if major events or cases had come before or after the case he is describing.

And the description of the events did seem a bit removed from Wittman's emotions...except for a very personal event that happens near the beginning of the story.

In general, though, this book about his undercover life inside a world I know little about proved interesting and a change from most of the memoirs I've read.
22 of 28 people found the following review helpful
By Rick Shaq Goldstein - Published on
If you are a connoisseur of crime books that range from criminal psychology to the Mafia to serial killers and beyond... and the thought of reading a book that revolves around some of the world's great works of art... including Matisse... Monet... Rembrandt... Picasso... et al... turns you off... or just plain scares you... hold on a minute! I have a large library of the aforementioned category of crime books and I was extremely apprehensive about buying this book for those very same "artsy" aversions. In retrospect... I'm thrilled that I took the chance and bought this book anyway. What the author, Robert Wittman, a former FBI special agent does so magnificently is he draws the reader in with the usual promise of FBI crime titillation... then educates the reader so gently and rhythmically it becomes an almost subliminal indoctrination into what I had previously viewed as a "hoity-toity" upper-crust world that was not meant for me.

Wittman starts you off with names that any layman would be familiar with such as Rembrandt and Picasso... and then takes you on the same educational journey he himself traveled... such as getting educated in a course at an art gallery that simply takes you aback when you're told: "ON THE WALL IN FRONT OF ME, SURROUNDING A THIRTY-FOOT WINDOW HUNG THREE WORKS WITH A COMBINED WORTH OF HALF A BILLION DOLLARS." (Picasso's "THE PEASANTS"... Matisse's "SEATED RIFFIAN"... and Matisse's "THE DANCE".) What the author does from there on out is not only illuminate the world of art... but he shares such a strong empathy for the people whose works of art have been stolen. At times the victims are individuals... at times the victims are galleries... at times the victims are cities and states... and at times the victims are entire countries. As the flow of the story engulfs you... you... like the author begin to realize that it's actually humanity as a whole that is victimized by these thefts. Being that I consider myself an "average-Joe", I never thought I would feel this way towards these magnificent works of art. That is the gift of this book. Additionally... potential readers will be surprised that valuable artifacts from the civil war that have so much emotional familial value have been stolen and in many cases passed hands by cold-hearted swindles. The author and FBI have gone to great lengths in reacquiring these priceless antiquities and it is all detailed in this wonderfully touching story. I would have never volunteered to sit through a class that claimed to teach the things that I learned in this book... and I would have been far poorer if I had not read this book. Who knew that there were *FOURTEEN ORIGINAL COPIES OF THE BILL OF RIGHTS*... and one was missing for decades? The author shines a light on the fact that most "ART AND ANTIQUITIES THIEVES DON'T LOOK MUCH LIKE PIERCE BROSNAN OR SEAN CONNERY. RATHER, THEY LOOK LIKE GEORGE CSIZMAZIA AND ERNIE MEDFORD, THE ELECTRICIAN AND CUSTODIAN WHO SYSTEMATICALLY STOLE MORE THAN $2 MILLION WORTH OF REVOLUTIONARY WAR AND CIVIL WAR RELICS FROM A PHILADELPHIA MUSEUM." (Note the color pictures the author includes in the book verify that in spades!)

When you finish this first rate crime story you will find that you will be quite knowledgeable in the art field without having made much of an extended effort. It's kind of like walking in a warm summer tropical rainstorm... it was so enjoyable you don't even realize you got wet.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It's True! Oct. 22 2010
By Rick Mitchell - Published on
It's true! Truth can be more astounding and interesting than fiction.

Mr. Wittman's account of his career as an undercover FBI agent trying to recover stolen artworks is fascinating, exciting and oh so interesting. He recounts eight to ten major busts he made along with a few references to other smaller ones and one colossal failure.

What helps these accounts resonate so well is that Mr. Wittman (and his co-author) walk the fine line of giving enough background for understanding without allowing that background noise to drown out the very good stories of the stings and busts. For instance, there is just enough biographical information and theory on Rembrandt to give the reader a taste of the artist while not overshadowing the hunt for his stolen "Self Portrait". The author also gives his theories of undercover work, background information on the structure of the FBI and the entire art theft industry, his own biography as well as information on most of the pieces of art he recovered.

Most of the book reads like a novel. Some of the accounts of the undercover stings had all the tension of a good mystery or piece of crime fiction.

Not only is this book chock full of information with excellent accounts of recovering (or attempting to recover) stolen art, it is highly entertaining. And, for that, it is highly recommended.
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