Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures by Robert K. Wittman, with John Shiffman, Crown, 320 pages
Writing about the January 2000 arrest of a Santa Fe antiquities dealer, former FBI agent and first-time author Robert K. Wittman informs the reader that his quarry, Joshua Baer, was hit with a raft of serious allegations. “Baer was charged with illegally selling or trying to sell seventeen artifacts, including the Navajo singer’s brush, the Jemez hair tie, a pair of Hopi wooden birds, the Cheyenne headdress, and a rare and most sacred Santo Domingo Corn Mother,” Wittman writes, cataloging some of the items he was offered while posing as a potential buyer. “The indictment set the total value of the illicit artifacts at $385,000.”
The Baer story, however, is incomplete — at
least as it appears in Wittman’s Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen
Treasures. Given the play Wittman devotes to listing the contents of the Baer indictment, one would assume that the dealer went to prison. As it turned out, Baer escaped without any jail time; he was sentenced in 2003 to probation, fines, and community service.
As a resolution to a tale of skullduggery and derring-do, this is something of an anticlimax. After all, Wittman (with help from co-author John Shiffman) spends more than 20 pages spinning the tale of how he cornered Baer, and he breathlessly titles his New Mexico chapter “Befriend and Betray.” If the saga was as thrilling as Wittman wants it to seem, surely the bad guy goes to the slammer, no?
But as a self-avowed fan of fictional lawmen like TV’s Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Wittman knows well enough to skip the boring parts. If that makes for a book with some holes, this line of thinking goes, so be it — at least it’ll never be a boring read.
And it never is. Despite his occasionally selective recitation of the facts, Wittman clearly forged a lively career in his 20 years with the FBI. In an era that often saw art crime relegated to an afterthought — “the theft of art and antiquities from museums wouldn’t become a federal crime until 1995,” Wittman writes — he helped recover plundered treasures valued at more than $200 million.
To hear Wittman describe the underworld of antiquities scamming, nothing is sacred — not even Antiques Roadshow. One day in 2000 a videotape of the popular PBS program landed on Wittman’s desk in his Pennsylvania office; the tape had been subpoenaed because of suspicions about a local antiques appraiser. It looked like a typical episode: two men seated in front of a camera, one the owner of an antique, the other an expert ready to give his appraisal of the item — in this case an early American sword. The owner tells the expert he would be happy to get $200 for the 200-yearold weapon. Hold on there, fella, the appraiser tells the man: “This sword is worth thirty-five thousand dollars.” “The segment was so good — an instant Antiques
Roadshow classic — that PBS aired it over and over, and used it in a fundraising video,” Wittman writes. “Some viewers suspected it was too good.”
The PBS audience was onto something. Soon, Wittman’s investigation would amass overwhelming evidence that the Roadshow segment was a sham, a performance meant to inflate the prices of the appraisal expert’s other holdings. The scam artists were duly charged.
The longest and most recent story in the book deals with Wittman’s attempts to track down the artworks — pieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Botticelli, Raphael, Degas, and others — stolen from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. A decade and a half after the theft, Wittman was in Paris to speak to a group of international art crime experts. While there, he got a tip: “Two Frenchmen living in Miami appeared to be trying to broker the sale of … a Vermeer. The world was missing only one Vermeer — the one from Boston.”
Though the chapter ends with the case unsolved, it finds Wittman at his storytelling best, tracking the paintings (and the lowlifes trying to sell them) from the U.S. to Europe and back again. The investigation involved faked masterpieces and a would-be art broker who didn’t know the difference between Manet and Monet. Though his work on the so-called “Operation Masterpiece” helped locate several paintings stolen from Nice, France, in 2007, Wittman left the FBI with the Gardner case unsolved. He was, apparently, becoming too well known to go undercover again.
But it seems he made his share of admirers on both sides of the illegal art trade. A couple of days after completing his work in Santa Fe, Wittman writes, he checked his email and found a note from Joshua Baer, the man he’d just busted. According to Wittman, Baer wrote: “Dear Bob. I don’t know what to say. Well done? Nice work? You sure had me fooled? ... Even though we’re devastated, we enjoyed the times we spent with you. Thanks for being a gentleman.”
When the guys you’re handcuffing start sending thank-you notes, you know you’re a hell of an undercover agent.