Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures Hardcover – Jun 1 2010
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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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Top Customer Reviews
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
"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 me...it 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.
First of all, PRICELESS is very much a memoir - it's the story of the author's life, not the story of art crime. I was hoping for the story of art crime - not just Bob Wittman's personal experience with it. I didn't really want to learn all about Bob Wittman's life, but I did. He tells us what his dad did for a living, how he got into the FBI, the time he was charged with drunk driving, what he was doing on 9/11, things that are memorable to him but didn't really catch my interest.
Each chapter focuses on a particular sting that Wittman made. But...apparently undercover work isn't that exciting. Now, I can appreciate that the reality is probably a lot different than the movies, and it's interesting to get a glimpse of the unvarnished truth. But the truth is mighty dull. A lot of these undercover operations boil down to, "This guy was selling some stolen art, so I pretended like I was a broker who wanted to sell it on the black market, and once we were sure the art was authentic we arrested him." Sure, maybe Wittman's heart was pounding at the time, and yeah, it would be kind of crazy to have a fake identity and "befriend and betray" a bunch of criminals. But it's not a page-turner.
I thought Wittman's discussion of art history was really shallow. He got his entire art education by taking a course at an eccentric museum in Philadelphia. It did him a lot of good - but it didn't make him an expert. More like an amateur who doesn't realize that he's got a lot left to learn. So whenever he stops to talk about art, the passages read like an encyclopedia - Rembrandt was born here, he moved there, he got married at such and such an age. There's no analysis but also not a lot of emotion. And he only seems to research the information directly relevant to the stolen work of art; so, for example, he discusses Rembrandt almost entirely in terms of self-portraits, because that's what he recovered. A lot of the stolen art that Wittman tracked down was decorative, or some kind of historical artifact - swords used during the Civil War for example. He describes each stolen treasure in detail, so there's a grab bag element to the subject matter; maybe you'll find it interesting, maybe you won't.
And then he ends the book by describing his involvement in FBI attempts to solve the Gardner art heist. The way he tells it, FBI infighting screwed up a really good opportunity to retrieve the paintings. So we end the book on a bitter note, faced with a massive failure and a cast of selfish bureaucrats who can't see the forest for the trees. The political infighting is the most intricate thing that happens in the whole book, and somewhat more exciting than another round of, "So I told him I wanted to buy the piece and took him to my hotel room..." - but it's also depressing.
I guess, on the whole, I'd rather have read a different, better book about art crime. But PRICELESS was ok, and there were some interesting bits.
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.