in the midst of the barnes’ collection (the largest collection of impressionist art in the world) moving from the suburbs to its new site on the parkway in philadelphia and a thief making off with a picasso drawing from the san francisco art museum, i finished priceless, how i went undercover to rescue the world’s stolen treasures. this account of robert wittman’s career as an undercover fbi agent specializing in art and antiquities theft will have you on the edge of your seat. (even though wittman cautions readers that the real world of art theft is nothing like the movies, his descriptions of his experiences would make a darn good movie)
it seems unbelievable that the fbi considered art and antiquities theft in the category of any other commodity, worth only its market value. the problem with that analysis (among other things) is that the bureau’s techniques during an arrest may endanger the work of art or send it permanently underground.
as wittman and others dedicated their careers to tracking down stolen art (and more importantly, cracking big cases that brought prestige to the bureau), attitudes changed and an entire division was dedicated to art theft.
it’s a fascinating read about the world of thieves and what it took to infiltrate their ranks. there is also a great deal of engrossing detail about how particular art pieces were authenticated. oh, and a wonderful section on taking art classes at the barnes.
ah, but the story doesn’t end that well. after many successes, art theft has again been relegated to the likes of all grand theft items. wittman frames the question well: is the art worth only its monetary value on the open market, or is there a greater value to be had in the recovery and preservation of art and antiquities?