Former FBI agent Robert Wittman speaks on art crimes

Maddie Margioni, Contributing Writer

Pull-out quote: “As an art history major, I found the talk to be really interesting, especially his story about going undercover as a member of the Russian mob to recover a Rembrandt that was stolen from the Swedish National Gallery. I also was excited to meet him because I’m a huge fan of his book ‘Priceless.’”

 

Members of the University community gathered in the Elaine Langone Center Forum on March 6 to hear from former FBI agent Robert Wittman about his time on the Art Crime Team (ACT). Wittman joined the FBI in 1988 and remained in the agency until 2008. Wittman was influential in the founding of the ACT during his time with the FBI in 2005, as he had spent time in Europe and seen that countries such as Italy, France, and Spain had large art crime teams, while the United States had no such federal team. During his 20 years with the FBI, Wittman recovered over $300 million worth of stolen art and cultural property.

 

Wittman began his talk by explaining to the crowded Forum that “art crime is not art history, it’s the art business.” The legitimate art industry is a $200 billion worldwide market, with 40 percent of its revenue, or $80 billion, concentrated in the United States alone. The illegal side of the industry is a $6 billion annual illicit cultural property market worldwide. He also explained that the art that is stolen or illegally sold is not just paintings or sculptures, but also collectibles like baseball cards, comics, or cars. The trafficking of art and collectibles is the fifth largest criminal enterprise internationally, behind money laundering, guns, drugs, and human trafficking.

 

Wittman also detailed the various art theft violations that the ACT works against, which include interstate transportation of stolen property, theft of major artwork, Hobbs Act robberies, smuggling, and mail or wire fraud. The Hobbs Act focuses on robberies which affect interstate commerce of art using force or intimidation. The most recent addition to these violations is theft of major artwork, which was added after the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum robbery where 13 objects of art that were valued over $500 million were stolen. Currently, there is a $10 million reward for any information leading to the recovery of all the pieces.

 

In the second half of his talk, Wittman told stories of his time with the ACT, including Operation Bullwinkle, when he went undercover as a member of the Russian mob to recover a stolen Rembrandt self-portrait. He finished by talking about his company, Robert Wittman Inc., which he started after retiring from the FBI in 2008. The company works in the private sector to protect individuals from theft, fraud, or forgery, as well as providing protection and recovery services to public and private collections worldwide.

 

“As an art history major, I found the talk to be really interesting, especially his story about going undercover as a member of the Russian mob to recover a Rembrandt that was stolen from the Swedish National Gallery. I also was excited to meet him because I’m a huge fan of his book ‘Priceless, ’” Washuta said.

 

“Wittman was extremely entertaining and his talk drew the audience into the world of art crime. The biggest takeaway was that art theft isn’t just a crime against an institution or state, it’s also a crime against culture,” co-president of the Samek Museum Art Club Grayson Kennedy ’19 said following the talk.

 

Wittman commented on his visit to the University, saying, “I found that the students and faculty are professional and the students are plugged in; they know what’s going on in the world and they are very intelligent and mature.” He also mentioned the Samek Art Museum at the University and how he hopes more students will take advantage of that great resource.

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