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

Priceless by Robert K. Wittman
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really liked it
bookshelves: nonfiction-crime-espionage, nonfiction-art-culture, reviewed
Recommended for: fans of true-crime or art-theft stories

Art crime doesn’t usually score as a tip-of-the-tongue subject in the true-crime genre. Perhaps it should; trafficking in stolen art is one of the top three international crimes (along with drugs and weapons). Priceless is a good, easy introduction to the subject as it follows the exploits of co-author Robert Wittman, founder of the FBI Art Crime Team, in tracking down missing artworks around the world.

Wittman (assisted by co-author John Shiffman) makes for an earnest, personable guide through the world of art thieves and smugglers, the often rococo bureaucratic wrangling inside the FBI, the push-me-pull-you relations with foreign and domestic law-enforcement agencies, and the dealers, museums, collectors, lawyers and brokers who slip back and forth across the fuzzy gray lines between legality and criminality. He avoids much of the impenetrable jargon associated with both the art world and the FBI, meaning a non-specialist reader can enjoy this as a cat-and-mouse tale. The specialist reader may want more meat, but that’s what Stealing the Mystic Lamb is for.

According to Wittman, FBI bureaucratic infighting and grandstanding blew the best chance yet to recover the masterpieces stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990 (the largest property-theft case in U.S. history) and caused him to retire the moment he was eligible. If true, the claim echoes others about the FBI and closely parallels the same rap often laid on the CIA (as in The Human Factor, Blowing My Cover and The Company We Keep). It’s a story no less depressing for its familiarity.

Like many of its ilk, Priceless is episodic; luckily, there’s just enough variation in the cases Wittman describes to keep this from becoming Groundhog Day (a problem Max Hardberger’s Seized flirted with). It would’ve been nice had the authors described more than one of the team’s failures so we could get an idea why these investigations often go on so long with so little payoff. Some more detail about fences, doctored provenances and the use of stolen art as payment for illicit goods would fill in the larger context of the illegitimate art trade. The authors clearly aimed for brisk storytelling rather than encyclopedic coverage of the subject – not a bad decision, but one that leaves a lot of food on the plate. Consider this the gateway drug into art-crime books.
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Reading Progress

December 31, 2011 – Shelved
August 13, 2012 – Started Reading
August 24, 2012 –
page 143
44.14% "Busy writing -- nearly at the end of my current WIP."
August 27, 2012 – Finished Reading

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