Converse's Reviews > Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures

Priceless by Robert K. Wittman
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Jan 01, 2011

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bookshelves: crime, memoir, non-fiction
Read in January, 2011 , read count: 1

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Wittman was an FBI agent who ended up specializing in solving art crimes. One difference between dealing with art crime and other property crimes is that with the former the object is unique. Consequently, getting the object back is an important consideration, possibly more important than punishing the criminals.

Most of the book is about Wittman working undercover to retrieve art and arrest the criminals. Typically Wittman posed as someone interested in buying the works, or as a representative of a buyer. The book starts and ends with the unsuccessful attempt to retrieve paintings stolen from the Gardner museum in Boston. Wittman retrieved South American artifacts of the Moche culture, an American Civil War regimental flag, the manuscript of Pearl Buck's novel "The Good Earth", and many paintings. Typically he would work with other law enforcement agents, who would move in and arrest the those responsible when Wittman had arranged to meet the criminals at a hotel room where they thought they were going to exchange the artifacts for cash. Wittman would be the only police officer in the hotel room, which was bugged. After he verified as best he could that the objects were genuine, he would make a remark indicating that it was time for the other police officers to move in and make the arrests.

I was surprised to learn that the FBI basically has so few personnel dedicated to art crime out of about 13,000 agents (didn't know the FBI was that big, either). That only a handful of agents are dedicated to art crime is surprising, because solving art crimes tends to create favorable publicity, which the FBI loves. FBI investigations, of any sort, can be hampered by the tradition of assigning responsibility for case to the office in whose geographical jurisdiction it took place, regardless of whether or not anyone in that office is experienced in that kind of crime. There were often disagreements among FBI offices about who had jurisdication. Things could be worse when a crime involved work in other countries, for there was often disagreements between the FBI and local law enforcement agencies. When there were multiple local police forces involved and more than one FBI office involved, all sorts of power struggles could occur over who would get the credit for solving the case. Apparently this is what happended in the Gardner case.

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