On Tuesday Evening, February 18th this writer attended a remarkable event at the Frick Collection and Frick Art Reference Library in New York City. Their Collectors group had a unique speaker that night, Robert Wittman, former lead agent of the FBI art theft team and author of Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures, (Crown Publishers), and while he too is a collector, his message regarded the things that can go wrong with prominent collections. In his twenty year career based out of Philadelphia retired Agent Wittman helped recover items worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
His lecture was nothing less than magnificent. He started out with statistics, estimating the worldwide annual art trade at $200 billion, but of that 3% or $6 billion was of illicit cultural property. That ranges from fakes and forgeries to smuggled items and outright theft. The Federal statutes that enabled Agent Wittman and his team to take action include Interstate Transportation of Stolen Property, Theft of Major Artwork, Hobbs Act, Smuggling, and Mail Fraud and Wire Fraud. As for art theft from museums, he stated most thefts were 'inside jobs'. He noted despite Hollywood’s depiction of art thieves as glamorous and debonair, most of them were not pretty at all.
His first example was Ernest Medford, a janitor at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Medford came to his attention when that museum noticed a few highly unique Civil War period presentation swords went missing. At first they had no idea where the stuff went, but eventually the trail led Agent Wittman to a collector named George Csizmazia who quickly confessed he was given the artifacts by the museum employee, the once trusted janitor, Ernest Medford. The photographs we saw of what had been taken from the society, and then recovered, were nothing less than mind blowing. It appeared that hundreds of objects had been taken. Eventually both Ernest Medford and George Csizmazia were sentenced to jail for their roles in this cultural crime. That was in 1998.
Seven years later Agent Wittman was involved in a case involving the Swedish National Museum in Stockholm. They had been robbed in 2000 of a Rembrandt and a Renoir. The thieves escaped by motorboat. As luck would have it, during the course of an investigation here in the United States, Wittman’s associates found the Renoir, which left the missing Rembrandt to recover. Since their lead informant was named Boris, Wittman named this, “Operation Bullwinkle.”
Despite the levity in the name, going undercover always had its risks. The informant was wanted by the Swedish police, but that was where the painting remained, so it was decided to mount an expedition based out of Copenhagen, Denmark, with an overnight trip to Stockholm where Wittman pretended to be an advisor to the Russian mob, and attempt to buy the hot Rembrandt on their behalf. Being part Japanese, Agent Wittman was perfect for this Asiatic role. After more complications with the thieves running misdirection plays with empty boxes, in case law enforcement was watching (and they were), Agent Wittman was finally handed the lost Rembrandt in the Swedish hotel room. On camera and monitored by wiretap, he gave the signal, and the Swedish police kicked down the doors and arrested everyone on the room. We were shown a video clip during the lecture of the police storming in. The recovered work by Rembrandt was an early self-portrait and estimated to be worth in the region of $35 million. Later the thieves had their sentence commuted. They claimed their Civil Rights were violated since their father turned them in, and that the recovery was a product of a police sting operation.
Other crimes are not so easy to resolve. Wittman cited the obvious, the Gardner Heist, but then he brought up a case out of Los Angeles where a couple made knock offs of famous prints, signed them, then sold them on late night television auctions. An estimated 10,000 people were conned out of $20 million buying fake Chagall, Picasso and Dali prints. The masterminds of the hoax were Gerald Sullivan, Kristine Eubanks and James Mobley under the shell of Fine Art Treasures Gallery. Sullivan and Eubanks ran the gallery while Mobley was the auctioneer. Fine Art Treasures Gallery operated an art auction television show, which aired on Friday and Saturday nights on DirecTV and The Dish Network from 2002 to 2006. Despite all three getting sent away to prison, and much of the monies being recovered, few people stepped forward for restitution. Why? Agent Wittman thinks some people are either too ashamed to admit they were taken, or maybe they want to sell the stuff on down the road. In any case there remains almost $4 million sitting unclaimed in a Federal bank account for buyers who want their money back.
After the lecture, I had a few moments to ask questions of Agent Wittman. Also on line was art collector Steve Martin, I let the wild and crazy guy go ahead of me, and when it was my turn, I thanked Robert Wittman for the marvellous and informative lecture, and asked him about the Buhrle art theft heist, another major crime which occurred in 2008. Quickly, and in passing, retired FBI Agent Wittman said, that it was an insurance ransom job. They recovered the four paintings (Monet, van Gogh, Renoir and a major Cezanne), but, despite the art coming back, he was not happy with the moral outcome. Payment just rewards them. Robert Wittman now operates a successful museum security consulting business. www.RobertWittmanInc.com www.frick.org