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Priceless: United States vs. Art Thieves

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Freshmen Art History Majors – Brieanah Gouveia, Cameron Skinner, and Caitlin Wright – gather for a group photo with Robert Wittman after having dinner with him and listening to his speech.

On April 1, Robert Wittman delivered a talk in the Wortmann Ballroom about his time at the FBI working on the Art Crime Team.

The talk started a little late because the ballroom was filled to capacity, and more chairs needed to be set up for the large audience. The talk lasted an hour an featured a PowerPoint presentation that featured clips from Wittman’s appearance on The Colbert Report, pictures of both Oscar winning and actual art criminals, and art industry facts and statistics.

Wittman spoke for an hour about the formation of the FBI’s Art Crime Team and regaled the audience with personal stories. It was Wittman himself who suggested the idea of establishing a team within the FBI dedicated to art recovery since 40% of the legitimate worldwide art market is run in the United States. Wittman pointed out that this amounts to roughly $80 billion dollars, which is more than the four major league sports combined.

Wittman said that there are five different art theft violations: interstate transportation of stolen property, theft of major artwork, a Hobbs act robbery, smuggling, and mail/wire fraud. Wittman stated that the protection of cultural property is everyone’s responsibility. Former generations protected the artwork and artifacts for this long, and it is this generation’s duty to make sure that future generations will be able to appreciate them too.

Wittman shared his own experiences working in the field with the audience in a humorous manner. He spoke of Hollywood’s glamorization of art thieves, and promptly displayed the images of art criminals he discovered. Wittman shared stories about recovering items stolen from Pennsbury Manor, a collection of Civil War swords, and Remembrant’s self portrait.

Wittman said that the theft of major art or cultural works makes them useless, because they lose their good name. The works cannot be resold to a high standing museum without proper identification. Most people fail to realize that it is hard to get rid of the work once it is stolen. In order to make sure you are buying the actual piece of work and not stolen items, you should make sure that everything is spelled correctly and analyze the wording used to describe the piece.

It is also important to remember that art recovery is a dangerous job. During the recovery of the Remembrant painting, Wittman went undercover as a negotiator for the Russian mob. He spoke of the importance of having a good SWAT team, but cautioned everyone to remember that “[The SWAT team] will be there to avenge your death, but they might not be there to prevent it.” He then went on to state that he believes that the Art Crime Team’s mascot would probably be “a chicken.” Wittman also mentioned that the best place to hide if bullets start flying is a bathtub.

Wittman received a large round of applause at the conclusion of his talk, and stayed after to sign copies of his book Priceless (copies available in the RC bookstore).