Current Weather
The Spy FM

Robert Wittman’s ‘Priceless’ Pursuit Of Stolen Art

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
June 24, 2011

This interview was originally broadcast on July 12, 2010. Robert Wittman’s book, Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures is now out in paperback.

In late December 2000, three people armed with machine guns went into the Swedish National Museum in Stockholm and ordered everyone to get down on the floor. For the next 40 minutes, the thieves ran through the museum, taking two Renoir paintings and a 1630 self-portrait by Rembrandt — a painting valued at $36 million.

Simultaneously, two car bombs went off on the main roads leading to the museum, located on a small peninsula in central Stockholm. As the thieves made their getaway in a high-speed boat, police could not access the museum because the highways were completely blocked.

Swedish authorities called in Robert Wittman to help them track down the paintings — and the thieves who stole them. Wittman, who spent 20 years with the FBI, is one of the world’s leading authorities on recovering stolen art and cultural property. After founding the FBI’s Art Crime Team, he revolutionized the way the bureau tracks down criminals who swipe paintings and antiquities in high-profile heists around the world.

For the Swedish case, Wittman went into the field, posing as a crooked art dealer looking to swap cash for the Rembrandt. After weeks of negotiation, he agreed to meet the thieves in a hotel room in Copenhagen.

“I was undercover at that point as an authenticator for an Eastern European mob group,” he tells Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies. “After about two weeks with the thieves who were still in Stockholm, we negotiated the price [of the Rembrandt] down to $250,000. We actually had $250,000 in cash in the hotel room. We were bringing it back and forth to let them know it was real.”

In the hotel room, video surveillance was recording every move Wittman and the thieves made. Next door, a Danish SWAT team was waiting for a signal from Wittman to move in and make arrests. Wittman had to convince the thieves the money was good before the fourth accomplice finally brought the painting to the hotel.

“And at that point, we were able to recover that $36 million Rembrandt,” he says. “Which was, probably the finest painting in the [Swedish National] Museum.”

In addition to the Rembrandt, Wittman has helped recover one of the original copies of the Bill of Rights, two paintings by Francisco Goya, five Norman Rockwell paintings and Geronimo’s eagle feather war bonnet. He is the co-author of Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

Leave a Reply

9PM to 5AM The Spy

The Spy

An eclectic mix of the Spy's library of more than 10,000 songs curated by Ferris O'Brien.

Listen Live Now!

5AM to 9AM Morning Edition

Morning Edition

For more than two decades, NPR's Morning Edition has prepared listeners for the day ahead with two hours of up-to-the-minute news, background analysis, commentary, and coverage of arts and sports.

View the program guide!

9AM to 10AM The Takeaway

The Takeaway

A fresh alternative in morning news, "The Takeaway" provides a breadth and depth of world, national and regional news coverage that is unprecedented in public media.

View the program guide!

Upcoming Events in your area (Submit your event today!)

Streaming audio and podcasts

Stream KOSU on your smartphone

Phone Streaming

SmartPhone listening options on this page are intended for many iPhones, Blackberries, etc. with low-cost software applications available to listen to our full-time web streams, both News on KOSU-1 and Classical on KOSU-2.

Learn more about our complete range of streaming services

We're perfecting the patient experience - Stillwater Medical Center