Price­less: How I Went Un­der­cover to Res­cue the World’s Stolen Trea­sures by Robert K. Wittman, with John Shiffman, Crown, 320 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - — Kevin Can­field

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.

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