SpyCast 12.5.23
Ep 614 | 12.5.23

“The Most Famous Art Detective in the World” – with ex-FBI Legend Robert Wittman


Andrew Hammond: Welcome to "SpyCast", the official podcast of the International Spy Museum. I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, the museum's historian and curator. Every week we explore some aspect of the past, present or future of intelligence and espionage. Please support the show for free by giving us a five-star review on Apple Podcasts. If you could leave a single sentence, it will help other listeners find us. It can literally take less than a minute. Thank you, friend. Coming up next on "SpyCast".

Robert Wittman: Ultimately, we did recover two Picasso's that were stolen in Paris worth about $60 million, and four paintings stolen from the Nice Museum at gunpoint that we were able to recover at the same time through that group. So these intelligence agencies all work together. [ Music ]

Andrew Hammond: This week's guest is Robert Wittman, the founder of the FBI's art crime team and a man dubbed the most famous art detective in the world. He's worked all over the world, spending years undercover and has recovered hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of stolen paintings and other cultural artifacts. And you thought your career was interesting. Bob has written two books, "Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures", and "The Devil's Diary: Alfred Rosenberg and the Stolen Secrets of the Third Reich." For more information on this episode or on Bob, go to our web page at the cyberwire.com /podcast/spycast for extended show notes, links to further resources and a full transcript. In this episode, we discuss how the FBI's art crime team was formed, Bob's time living and working undercover abroad, what it's like to have your life threatened, the intelligence angle to investigating stolen art and Bob's year-long undercover search for the still missing Rembrandt painting, "The Storm in the Sea of Galilee," the Dutch master's only seascape that was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990. The original podcast on intelligence since 2006, we are "SpyCast". Now sit back, relax and enjoy the show. Thanks for joining me this morning.

Robert Wittman: Great. I'm happy to be here.

Andrew Hammond: And I wonder if you could just tell us how you came to join the FBI. When did you join? What was the motivation behind that?

Robert Wittman: Well, I was always interested in the FBI because they were the preeminent group of law enforcement that protected civil rights and protected people who, you know, needed protection as far as different cultures and nationalities were concerned. My mother was Japanese and we came to the United States, I was two years old back then. I was born in Tokyo and I came here when I was two years old and my mother, it was very close to the Second World War, the end of the Second World War. So basically around 1960, I remember some prejudice type of things happening with my mother and I always thought the FBI was the, like I said, the preeminent law enforcement agency to protect people. Well, not only that, I was always interested in -- it was the 1980s when I joined up in 1988 and there was a great television show called "Miami Vice", and there was these two guys, Crockett and Tubbs, and they looked like they were having so much fun down in Miami and I wanted to do that too.

Andrew Hammond: Don Johnson.

Robert Wittman: Yeah, Don Johnson. That's right. I wanted to do that too. So I joined up and what happened was I went in through Baltimore, and of course my first office wasn't Miami. I ended up in Philadelphia, which is a little bit different from Miami.

Andrew Hammond: I can imagine. So you grew up in Baltimore?

Robert Wittman: Yes, I grew up in Baltimore.

Andrew Hammond: Okay. Wow. So you always saw the FBI as the good guys?

Robert Wittman: Yeah, they always were. Yeah, there was a great TV show with Ephraim Zimbalist Jr. called "The FBI" and came on Sunday nights after or before Ed Sullivan. You can watch that before you watch the debut of the Beatles. So anyway, it was an interesting show as well. And growing up and seeing all that, I always thought it was interesting. Also there was a person who lived across the street from me when I was a child and I played with his sons. We had fun together and all that. And he was an FBI agent in Baltimore and I always admired him. So I thought it would be a great job to get.

Andrew Hammond: And was it what you expected it to be?

Robert Wittman: Oh, much better.

Andrew Hammond: Really?

Robert Wittman: Yeah, I was there from 1988 to 2008. During that period of time, I think I was involved in the recoveries of more than $300 million worth of stolen art and cultural property. I didn't plan it that way. As I said, I wanted to be Don Johnson on "Miami Vice." But when I first came to Philadelphia, I was given two cases involving thefts from the Museum of Pennsylvania at the University of Pennsylvania and also from the Rodin Museum. And as a result of those investigations, I continue to do art theft investigations, ultimately becoming probably the bureau expert in how to do cultural property, cultural heritage investigations and recoveries.

Andrew Hammond: So you went from hopes of South Beach and you ended up in South Philly?

Robert Wittman: Yeah, more like North Philly. A little bit of South Philly too.

Andrew Hammond: So what was that like? Tell us a bit more about the Philadelphia that you encountered when you first went there.

Robert Wittman: Well, 1988, you know, the MOVE debacle had just occurred about a year, year and a half before. That was a very bad time for cities in America, Baltimore included, Philadelphia, New York. It was before the renaissance, so to speak, that started around 1992. So when I got here, it was almost as if, you know, it was more of a containment strategy. So you could sit in a squad car on main roads and listen to a gunshot. You can listen to these types of things. But there was no response to it.

Andrew Hammond: You go on to be the bureau's expert in art crime, stolen cultural property. Is this something that you came to the bureau with? Had you done it in college or something? Did you have an interest in it or did you pick it up?

Robert Wittman: It's interesting you say, is that something you did in college? No, I never stole any artifacts in college.

Andrew Hammond: I mean, studied art or had an interest in art.

Robert Wittman: No, I understand. Now, what happened was I was given those two cases. I was assigned to a property crime squad, which at that time in Philadelphia was a task force squad that was doing investigations in truck hijackings, because Philadelphia is a main thoroughfare for I-95 from New York all the way down to Florida. So a lot of loads of cigarettes, alcohol were all being stolen. So that squad was doing that type of type of work. And these two art theft cases came in. And my partner and I, who was my training agent, we started, we did the art crime stuff. So he was doing those investigations when I got here. I worked with him. And as I say, the one theft was a crystal ball from the University of Pennsylvania Museum. It was from the Asian Gallery. And in fact, it's the second largest crystal ball in the world. It was collected from the Dowager Empress of Xixi of China and was collected for the museum. The piece weighs more than 50 pounds and that had been stolen and we were able to recover that. And the other piece that was stolen at gunpoint from the Rodin Museum was The Man With The Mask With The Broken Nose, which is a very famous Rodin sculpture. So that was taken. Within a year, we were able to recover both of those pieces. And as a result, the FBI sent me to art school at the Barnes Foundation. And then I went for a diamond school at the GIA in Santa Monica and a jewelry theft investigation and school teaching at the Zales Corporation in Texas. So once I was trained up, basically they utilized me.

Andrew Hammond: And when you say they sent you to art school, what do you mean?

Robert Wittman: Well, I did a year of study at the Barnes Foundation. Basically, it was one day a week for four hours. And it wasn't actually a course on learning how to create art. It was how to identify art. And the foundation is world renowned. It's a famous museum. I think there's more Cezannes in the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia than there are in any single place in the world, even in France. So more than 60, I think more than 70 Renoirs. So ultimately, as a law enforcement officer, it was great to be able to see the difference, the technique of the painting, the genre, the colors, to be able to tell a difference say between a Picasso and a Renoir. I mean, for the art historian or someone cultured in art, that's hilarious. But for a law enforcement officer, it's a big deal. So as a result, going to the Barnes Foundation and being there for a year like that and identifying art, it helped me to identify these different artists.

Andrew Hammond: So you go to Philadelphia and then you spend a few years there. So you don't get sent to another, you know, city or field office in the FBI, then you go in to be an art theft specialist. Is that correct?

Robert Wittman: Well, I never left Philadelphia. I was there for 20 years from 1988 to 2008. That was my assigned office. But ultimately, I'd worked in 20 different countries. So although we recovered art in the United States, we also recovered a lot of material and cultural heritage from Peru, Ecuador, Spain. I did undercover operations in Spain, Denmark, Copenhagen, France, Germany. So yeah, all over the world.

Andrew Hammond: Wow. And what was the state of this field and the FBI when you joined it? It was basically non-existent. A stolen work of art was just treated like a stolen car or a stolen piece of family jewelry or something like that? It was just a regular theft and it was treated as such?

Robert Wittman: Well, ultimately, you have to think about it as property crime. Right now, I guess the lowest priority in the FBI hierarchy of priorities, I guess this is below the lowest, is property crime. When it comes to law enforcement, there's no difference really between a Chevrolet and a Monet. They're both the same. They're just a piece of property. Of course, you know, when you look at it from the viewpoint of first value, but also from the viewpoint of cultural heritage, it becomes a whole different story. I think there's much more value in cultural heritage than there is in say just plain property. So at the time when I started, it was considered a property crime and it was investigated just like an auto theft. We sort of made that professional. In 2005, I created the National Art Crime Team for the FBI, which has more than 20 members today. I think they've recovered more than $700 million worth of stolen art and cultural property since the beginning, and that's because we trained them in how to do these types of investigations.

Andrew Hammond: I'm just trying to understand how much the regular investigative tools and tradecraft you use at the FBI for other types of theft, how much of what you would have to do to investigate stolen art or cultural property/ Was that a different kind of skill set or was it just applying the same skill set to a different field?

Robert Wittman: Well, there's a different type of skill set in that, you know, you're not going to go into a museum and spread fingerprint powder all over the place. It has to be a little more delicate. Also the fences, the people who are going to buy and sell stolen art are different from standard, you know, body shop, auto shop, you know, cutters. So that's a whole different situation. There's different types of art crime. Just in general, the cultural heritage market, the art market is about a $200 billion industry every year. That's how much gets bought and sold legitimately all over the world. The United States is the number one consumer country in the world for art, cultural property and antiques. Almost $80 billion gets bought and sold here, 40% of the market. About $6 billion is the illicit cultural property market. That's the criminal art crime market, and that includes things like theft, but it also includes frauds, forgeries and fakes, which today is probably 75% of the crime that occurs in that market. So, you know, investigating an art forgery is different from investigating an art theft. In an art theft investigation, you're going to do a standard forensic investigation. You're going to be checking for surveillance tapes, you're going to be checking for, you know, footprints, hair and fibers, fingerprints, all of that forensic material. In an art fraud or art forgery investigation, it's a whole different type of investigation.

Andrew Hammond: And what kind of people are we talking about here? I understand there's a certain amount of variety of different types of people, but when you're looking at stolen art, forged art, et cetera, are we talking about different types of people? So, you know, if it's a gas station hold-up, you know, someone with a Born to Lose tattoo, you know, driving a particular type of vehicle? Are we talking like higher-end criminals wearing cravats and having master's degrees and stuff, or is it basically the same people, but they're just stealing something different?

Robert Wittman: No, it's everything you just said, all of the above. It's everything from, you know, the Born to Lose guys who are out there doing armed robberies up to the guys with the cravats with PhDs in art history. You know, we found through our research at the FBI and all the cases that have been investigated up to that point around the early 2000s, 90% of art thefts in museums and institutions in the United States were inside jobs.

Andrew Hammond: Wow, 90%?

Robert Wittman: Yeah. So it's very seldom that you get 90% yes, very seldom that you get, you know, these armed robberies or the burglary from outside. It's usually, nine times out of ten, it's going to be someone who has the keys to the kingdom. I mean, a very good example of that right now is the problems that the British Museum is going through in London, where one of their curators is looking -- they're looking at maybe 1,500 pieces that he's taken over the course of the last 10, 15 years. So that's the same thing that kind of happens in the United States. Generally, it's an inside job. Now, the ones that get to all the publicity are the outside, those are the armed robberies. Okay, the Edward Monk "Scream" painting in Oslo, which was stolen at gunpoint. A case I did in Stockholm, Sweden involving $42 million worth of paintings that were stolen at gunpoint. These are the worldwide headlines. But it's usually an inside job where someone is actually stealing right out from under everyone's noses.

Andrew Hammond: It's like those old-fashioned movies, like "The Pink Panther" and stuff, or "To Catch a Thief", you know, sophisticated, sneaking in on ropes and grabbing diamonds and not setting off the alarms and stuff, but that's the minority.

Robert Wittman: You're going all the way back to Cary Grant.

Andrew Hammond: Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Robert Wittman: Or Pierce Brosnan in "Thomas Crown Affair." These are, you know, the Hollywood, how they portray it.

Andrew Hammond: So that's quite interesting. Can you share with our listeners an example of one that you worked on where it was an inside job?

Robert Wittman: Sure. We have one case, it was just in Philadelphia, where we were called by the curator from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Now, the Historical Society was started in the first 10 years of 1800, between 1801 and 1810. And what had happened was, throughout all these centuries, families had been giving important pieces, usually U.S. historical items to the museum. They had more than, at that point, 13,000 items in their collection. So the curator called us and said she was missing three swords and a long rifle. And these pieces she had seen, she moved them off of display and put them on a table to be put away for later. After a few weeks, she was checking the table and things were gone. So I mean, these were pretty large items, valued at about $750,000. So we conducted an investigation when we went in, and we spoke to over 100 people. We talked to everybody who was at the museum. Basically, we had no leads. We only missed one person, and that was a guy named Ernie, who was the chief maintenance man. But he had been there for 20 years, totally trusted. He was sick that day, so we didn't get a chance to speak to him. We'll get it to him later. We did an investigation at a Civil War show. This rifle and these swords were from the American Civil War, and they're called presentation swords. So we went to this Civil War show in Richmond, Virginia, and we met with a person who had written a book about the presentation swords of Pennsylvania. And we spoke to him about the theft. He said that he didn't know anything about these swords. He said, but there was a man who had called him, who was a dealer. And this dealer said that a suspicious individual came into his shop up in the Poconos, well north of Philadelphia, and said that he had a presentation sword that was owned by a major that was in the Union Army during the Mexican-American Wars in the 1840s. But the dealer said that was strange to him because he thought that that piece was in the Historical Society collection. So they checked it. They looked it up, and it was listed in the book as part of that collection. So when I got back to Philadelphia, I called and found out that they told me that they still had it. So I guess it was kind of a mistake on the information, but I still was able to get that person's name and address. That was the person who had walked in and mentioned this to the dealer. So my partner and I went and visited him. He lived a few minutes south of Philadelphia in Delaware County. We ultimately went to the house. There was no one there. We then followed up. He was an electrician, and we went down to his electrical shop, and we asked for him. They called him in off the road. He came in. His name was George. George walks into the shop, and we say, George, we're here to talk to you about the swords. So George, he looks down at the ground, and then looks back at me, right in my eyes, and he says, Ernie told you, didn't he? And we said, of course. Why else would we be there? If Ernie hadn't told us, we wouldn't have known about you. And he said, I knew he'd speak. I knew he'd talk. I knew he'd tell. So he says, yeah, I had the swords. So as it turns out, we went back to George's house to reclaim those swords. We went into a bedroom that he was in, and he had knocked out one of the walls for the two-bedroom and between the two bedrooms in a three-bedroom townhouse, and he had one of the finest collections of U.S. historical items, more than 200 pieces. Remember, we're looking for four pieces. He had more than 200, and as a result, he had been stealing from the Historical Society for seven years. And Ernie was sneaking one piece at a time out and selling it to George for a total of about $7,000. But as it turned out, all the material together was worth over $2.5 million. So he had more than 200 pieces he had stolen. One of the really interesting pieces was a rifle carried at Harper's Ferry by John Brown's men, and another one was a tea caddy. It was an ivory tea caddy that George Washington had the winter of Valley Forge. It was in his tent, so it ended up in George's bedroom.

Andrew Hammond: That's incredible.

Robert Wittman: It's an amazing thing. That was the largest recovery of stolen U.S. historical items at one time in history.

Andrew Hammond: That's really incredible. I think Philadelphia is a city really rich in cultural history, but you head up the National Art Crime Unit, so you're doing stuff across the United States?

Robert Wittman: Yes. Internationally, all over the world. As I said, I worked on cases in 20 countries. It was interesting because working on those cases, you're not a law enforcement officer in Spain. You're not a law enforcement officer in Denmark. You basically are an American citizen, and you're helping the police, cooperating with the police there. One of the better cases we did undercover -- and I worked a lot undercover. Between 1995 and 2008, I was undercover somewhere in the world working cases. One of the best ones that we did using the tradecraft and all, I used to teach tradecraft at the undercover school in Quantico for FBI agents. One of the best ones was a case involving an armed robbery of the National Museum in Stockholm, Sweden. Three individuals went in on December 23rd, right after 5 p.m. It was dark. It was cold. These guys went in with machine guns. They put everybody on the floor, and then two of the guys ran around the museum. They stole three items, two by Renoir, two paintings, and then one by Rembrandt. Total value of that heist that night was $42 million, biggest art crime in Swedish national history. They set off two car bombs on the main roads leading to the museum, which was at the end of a peninsula. You've got to picture it. It's dark, cold. Two car bombs go off. They put tack strips down. The police and fire department couldn't respond for 40 minutes. It stopped them. They made their getaway by jumping into a high-speed boat right there at the pier where the museum is. Then they made their way up into the harbor. It's kind of like "The Italian Job," the movie, on this robbery, really a well-done robbery, well thought out. They made one mistake. When they pulled their boat over, they were seen by a fisherman who was out that evening. He saw these three guys jump out of their boat and run up into the city carrying these bags. He didn't think much of it, but the next morning when, of course, all the newspapers and all the radio and television was talking about this huge heist, he called the police and gave them the information about the boat and the men that he saw. The police followed up, the Stockholm City Police, and they were able to discover that the boat had been sold about six weeks before and that the individuals who bought it used a credit card. It's not always the smartest thing to do. If they didn't do these things, we'd never catch them, I guess, right? They were able to identify ten individuals who they thought were involved in this heist. They did recover one of the Renoir's, a piece called "The Conversation," a very nice little painting, and they put all ten on trial. Seven were convicted, three were acquitted. Fast forward now, that was 2001, a year after the heist. Fast forward to 2005, during an investigation in Los Angeles, the FBI had a drug investigation on a Bulgarian national who had arrest warrants all over the world, and he had been involved in crime all his life. While this individual was talking about -- his name was Boris, he was talking about selling a painting, which was a Renoir stolen from Sweden. So there was only one missing, and that was the one from the Swedish National Museum heist. So ultimately, the FBI were able to do a surveillance, they were able to recover the Renoir from the Bulgarian national named Boris, and they got the painting back worth about $4 million. The interesting thing part was, though, that Boris actually knew where the Rembrandt was. So we had the two Renoirs, okay, they recovered $7 million, but you got the $35 million Rembrandt still out there, and it was still in Sweden. So as it turns out, Boris was willing to cooperate to get a downward departure on sentencing for his drugs. So we started an operation called Operation Bullwinkle, which, it's kind of interesting, we use that name because you had Boris the Bulgarian, and Natasha, maybe your listeners can remember Rocky the Squirrel and Bullwinkle the Moose. Well, this was Boris. And so now you know how the FBI makes these names up, right, for these operations. So we did Operation Bullwinkle, which was an undercover operation to go to Sweden and Denmark to do, you know, to meet with the criminals, offer $250,000 in cash, and then do the deal. Ultimately, I was the undercover on the case because I knew the tradecraft. And so I went and worked undercover with the Swedish National Police and the Danish National Police. And we were able to meet with these individuals and do a by-bust, basically, of the painting by convincing them that I was with the Russian mob, and that I was an authenticator that they hired to do this deal. So ultimately, they did bring the painting to us. And you know, we were able to recover that as well. So the Swedes were happy to get their $35 million painting back.

Andrew Hammond: And how did you get brought into that, Robert? Was this collaboration or helping out external partner? Help me understand how the FBI got involved in a case in Sweden.

Robert Wittman: Well, the FBI got involved in that case because, first of all, we had the cooperator out of Los Angeles. So we did have a tie into, you know, being able to help the Swedes. Secondly, we have a program at the FBI called the Foreign Police Cooperation Program. So as a result, you know, we try to help nations and police, national police departments in their investigations because, you know, what we do for them, they do for us. So you know, we have negotiation and contacts, communication with the embassies. And you know, there's times when we need their help, you know, with, you know, Americans that are creating crimes, organized crime in the United States that are working in their countries. So as a result of, you know, that, we work together. So we help them, they help us. It's Foreign Police Cooperation, and it works out really well, both diplomatically. And it's interesting when we do spy kind of work. It's not necessarily as a spy for information for, you know, like for the CIA. It's more of an undercover activity to stop, you know, criminal proceedings.

Andrew Hammond: It sounds really fascinating. So you go through these courses, you build up this unit, but I'm assuming that you work with curators and museums or people at Christie's or other people that can evaluate whether something's the real deal or not. Help us understand where the tentacles of an investigation of this type might reach.

Robert Wittman: It goes all over the world. I mean, you know, when I did that case with the Rembrandt, I was at the Philadelphia Museum of Art looking at comparable pieces. That particular Rembrandt was done when he was 24 years old in 1630. It was painted on copper, which was a very, very valuable metal at the time. Very few things were done on copper, and he used gold flecks in the paint. And the obvious use of the curascuro, which he invented, Rembrandt invented, which is a shadow and light on portraits. So being able to identify that painting was important, and seeing others like it became very important as well. So I had some familiarization with what I was looking at. Now, you have to be able to speak about the painting to these thieves. Now, they had no interest in the art part of it. They just wanted the money. But just to show you, at one point when I was looking at it, I had to authenticate it. And the way I did that was I had gotten great photographs from the museum, which showed the back of the painting. And many times the backs of these artworks are as important as the fronts, because there's a lot of information about provenance, about the history of the artwork, and also about how it's been, you know, framed and put together. So in this particular case, there were four screws that held the painting into the frame. And I could see that the screws had been turned on certain angles, and they were still the same from the photograph to what we saw when we received the painting itself. So I could tell it was never taken out of the frame. And at one point, I said to them, hey, you never even took it out of the frame, did you? And they looked at me, and they were aghast. They said, of course not, you know, like it's a Rembrandt, right? So it just goes to show that they appreciated it. They knew what they had was a very valuable piece of cultural heritage, you know, valuable to millions of people. And I even said to them, I said, are you art lovers? Because I was surprised they were so, you know, adamant about it. They said, no, we just want the money. But it goes to show, even they knew, they had an appreciation for what it was.

Andrew Hammond: So would you do a lot of the evaluation yourself? You would be the person that would decide whether or not it was the real deal, or did you have to sometimes go to external people to consult?

Robert Wittman: Generally speaking, from what I saw when it came to a stolen property, that was usually the real deal. Nobody was trying to steal a painting and then sell a fake back, you know, as the painting at that moment undercover. Now, that did happen. There was a dealer in New York City who was buying Marc Chagall paintings. And what he would do is have them repainted, you know, copied. And then what he would do is turn around and sell the copies as the original with the original paperwork. So he would get the paperwork with the originals, and he'd have that with it, then he'd sell the copies, say, in Hong Kong, while keeping the ones in New York, you know, at the same time. Ultimately, he made a mistake and sold both at the same time, so it didn't work out for him. So that happens. But generally speaking, undercover operations, when we're, you know, making these kind of deals, they're real. Now, when it comes to frauds and forgeries, then you have to get the opinion of experts. And the reason for that is because my opinion wouldn't fly in court. It wouldn't be the opinion of an expert, just an investigator. So the expert would have to come in and testify.

Andrew Hammond: Okay. And what kinds of people would come in to testify? Would it be curators and people from the auction houses and so forth, or professors from academia, or all of the above?

Robert Wittman: It would be all of the above, whatever the situation was. Usually we didn't use auction house people because they're basically, you know, there to buy and sell. But professors from universities, you know, experts in Rembrandt, that type of thing, we would pull those people in. Archaeologists. Usually, we didn't have problems with paintings. It was usually with archaeological material to prove it was true, real stuff, you know, because there's a lot of fakes out there when it comes to archaeological material.

Andrew Hammond: So we're talking like Greek vases and so forth.

Robert Wittman: Yeah. You know, they've been reproduced for years. You know, the Romans reproduced the Greeks. So there's a lot of Roman statues that are done in the Greek style that, you know, people can make a mistake. And, you know, the Greek statues could be worth a little bit more money on the open market than the Roman because it's just the way it is. So I mean, there's a lot of reproductions. I would say people should be very careful if they're going to be collectors who get involved in buying those types of archaeological or, you know, historical artifacts.

Andrew Hammond: And when they're buying those types of things, are they generally pretty safe if they're going through established venues to buy these types of things as opposed to, you know, going on eBay or Craigslist or something like that? There's a certain level of vetting built in if they buy it through a reputable place?

Robert Wittman: Yeah, of course. The biggest, I guess, complaints to the FBI Cybercrime Center are centered around eBay fraud. So there's so many people selling things on eBay. I would say to anyone, if you're going to buy a Picasso on eBay, you should make sure that there's two S's in Picasso, that it's signed. [ Music ]

Andrew Hammond: To help you digest this episode, here's a short interlude on the Nazis and stolen art. Adolf Hitler had been a painter in Vienna and had tried to get into the Academy of Fine Arts in that city on several occasions. He held strong views on art and culture. And when he became the Führer, these views shaped what was considered good and bad art by the German state, leading to the removal of 20,000 works of art from state-owned museums. He also saw art as a way to promote Nazi ideology. In the 1930s, they held the multi-year long Great German Art Exhibition, which showcased art under Nazism. Perhaps better known is the Degenerate Art Exhibition in Munich, which was a counterpoint to the Great German Art Exhibition, but which ironically attracted a lot more visitors. These views on art, aesthetics, culture, and the racial, ethnic, and religious background of the artists found out across Europe as one country after another fell to the German armies as the Nazis attempted to conquer the entire continent. The Nazis systematically looted art from occupied countries, targeting Jewish collectors in particular, with a view towards populating the planned Führer Museum, an epicenter of German art that was to be placed in his home city of Linz. As the war progresses, the Allies set up the Monuments, Fine Art, and Archives Program, the so-called Monument Men, to preserve cultural heritage and locate art stolen by the Nazis. Much of this art was found in salt mines and castles, and the restitution of this art still takes place to this day, as exemplified by the September 2023 return of seven pieces of art from U.S. museums and collectors to the family of Jewish artist Egon Schiele, who was arrested by the Nazis in Vienna and died in the Dachau concentration camp. You mentioned the fences. What are the fences like in this kind of field? Is it a different animal that you're dealing with? I would imagine it's a pretty small universe of people. Are they generally well known, but sometimes they're inside jail, sometimes they're out, and sometimes they get caught, and sometimes they don't? Or is it just all over the place and it's always very difficult to pin down?

Robert Wittman: The fences basically are, usually there are people who don't know material stolen. So when we have a situation where somebody's out there stealing a $15 million Goya, there's no fence for that. Those particular people are going to be trying to sell it on their own because there's nobody they can take it to. But generally, a lot of artworks and cultural heritage pieces are under $10,000 in value, and they go through secondary markets. They can go through small auction houses, you know, mom-and-pop auction houses. They don't do the background checks. They make you sign a document that says you own it, that you have good value for it, that you have ownership. But other than that, that's all they do because that gets them off the hook for selling stolen property. Or they go through flea markets, these things can be sold there as well, you never know. So there really are no actual quote fences for stolen art, not like when you have a chop house, where you're chopping up cars and selling parts. It doesn't really work that way with art. Not only that, you have to sell the art in good shape. You can't chop it up.

Andrew Hammond: The art comes from the integrity of the whole piece.

Robert Wittman: Exactly, it comes from the provenance, the ownership, and the history, authenticity, all those things are part of the legs of the stool that give it value, and if it's missing any of that, it has no value.

Andrew Hammond: There must be some people out there who are high-net-worth individuals, who through a friend of a friend, find out there's a stolen Goya, and they're thinking, you know what, it's worth $10 million, I can have it for a million, I'm going to put it in my house, no one's going to find it, I don't give a crap that it's stolen, I'm saving $9 million here. Does that happen?

Robert Wittman: Well, I can tell you that the whole idea of the super-rich billionaire sitting there with these stolen paintings in his basement, where he stares at them at night time with a glass of scotch, or a bourbon, or a cognac --

Andrew Hammond: Describing my life.

Robert Wittman: There you go, that's you, huh? Yeah, but the ones you're staring at are all copies, and that's okay.

Andrew Hammond: I bought them from the museum gift shop.

Robert Wittman: There you go. Well, the thing with that is that whole concept comes from a famous James Bond movie. Back in 1962, the first James Bond movie that was really successful was "Dr. No," and people remember that. And at the time, there was a Goya painting that was actually stolen from the British Museum, and it had been taken the year before. One of the producers of the movie read about that in the local newspapers in London. So he had a copy of that painting made, actually had it reproduced, and they put it on an easel going into Dr. No's lairs. And as James Bond went into the lair, you might remember, he looked at it for a second and had that quizzical look on his face, like, I wondered where that went. So ever since then, there's this Dr. No theory of the rich guy, the villain with all these paintings in his basement. And you know, a funny thing, I've never seen that. I've seen it with smaller items, like when Ernie stole those pieces from the Historical Society. But I've never seen a really rich guy with tens of millions of dollars' worth of paintings in his basement. And the reason for that is it's expensive. It's like you said, if you can buy a $10 million painting, you still have to have the million to pay for it. And remember, you're not getting anything. You don't own it. So as soon as the authorities or anybody finds out about it, you're going to lose it and maybe go to jail yourself. So it's really not worth it, is it? I mean, people who have that kind of wherewithal don't want to waste their money on something they can't even own or show. And so that's why I've never actually seen that. Ultimately, too, just to finish the story on James Bond, at the end of the filming of the movie, that painting was stolen.

Andrew Hammond: Really?

Robert Wittman: It went missing.

Andrew Hammond: Wow.

Robert Wittman: Yeah.

Andrew Hammond: That's a great movie as well. I love Dr. No.

Robert Wittman: Dr. No?

Andrew Hammond: Yeah.

Robert Wittman: The painting went missing.

Andrew Hammond: Wow. That's incredible. So when you set up the FBI unit that looks into this, I'm just wondering, was part of your inspiration -- I know that the Italians, they had the Carabinieri art squad, I believe, that was set up in 1969. And you've already mentioned this next one, the Scotland Yard Antiquities Unit, which was also set up in the late '60s. Were those two things that were on your radar when you went to your bosses and said, listen, we need to replicate these other types of units here in the United States?

Robert Wittman: Yeah. Well, what happened was after I got back from doing the undercover operation in Sweden, we realized that we needed to have a unit set up because we didn't have a professional art crime unit. Basically, every office at the FBI had a crime unit, a crime task force, or a squad for a property crime, including jewelry and cars and that type of thing. But nothing for art. So when I got back, I had worked with the OCBC in Paris, which is the art crime unit in Paris. Also, there's two squads in Madrid, the Scotland Yard Antiques and Antiquities Squad, also the Carabinieri, which has 300 members, there's 300 investigators.

Andrew Hammond: That's a lot.

Robert Wittman: Yeah, well, you know, everything with six inches in the ground in Italy is a cultural heritage. So there's a lot going on there. So when I got back, I went to headquarters and I said, you know, we need a unit to do this. And they agreed. It was good publicity. That's one of the things that when you recover a Goya or a Picasso, you get a lot of publicity and the FBI needed good publicity at the time. So they thought that was a good idea. And so we were able to create that unit.

Andrew Hammond: And how many people work in the unit, Robert?

Robert Wittman: Well, as I said, when I first started, when we came up with it, it was eight agents from around the country. I was surprised. You know, we put out a general call. It was five years of experience with three years of criminal investigative experience. And I didn't expect to get too many calls, to be honest with you. But we got over 75 applications for the unit and we only had room for eight nationwide. So, you know, we had to really call them out, so to speak. Today, I think there's more than 20. It's grown into that. I retired in 2008, three years after the beginning. And today there's more than 20 and they're going strong. So I'm really proud to see that that's continuing.

Andrew Hammond: And do you still keep contact with them?

Robert Wittman: Some of the guys that I picked to begin with are still there.

Andrew Hammond: Okay.

Robert Wittman: They never leave. Yeah. So, yeah, we keep in contact. I work with them, you know. I still have my company, Robert Wittman, Incorporated. And I started that when I retired and we do investigation. We do art collection management. We do authenticity and provenance reviews. We do security reviews for museums. I recently did the security survey for the National Gallery of Art in Washington. And we do a lot of expert witness testimony. And when we do these investigations, we take it up to the point where we have all the evidence and we turn it over. And sometimes we go to the FBI. Other times we'll go to Homeland Security Investigations, whichever agency is more appropriate.

Andrew Hammond: In this world, do you run up against intelligence agencies? So for example, is North Korean intelligence or Russian intelligence somehow part of this world to launder money? Are they at all involved in this kind of world?

Robert Wittman: Well, it's not so much the intelligence. I would say the unintelligence agencies.

Andrew Hammond: Right.

Robert Wittman: The terrorist groups in the Middle East, you know, the Taliban, the al-Qaeda, the different groups were very much into taking artifacts and selling them on the market to finance their operations. So they had many different types of financial operations going, money laundering, that type of thing. But one of them was stealing artifacts, digging up artifacts, and moving them through an underground system to try to raise more money. So that was something that they were doing. You know, it was part of the intelligence operation for those groups. Not sure Russia or North Korea is dealing in intelligence when it comes to art and artifacts. There's one interesting, I guess, program back in the 1950s where the CIA was actually promoting art around the world in order to compete with Russia's art. And so it was kind of an interesting thing that they were supporting some of the artists like Jackson Pollock or whatnot, you know, in order to, I guess, compete with them. So I mean, I guess it can be used for that type of purpose.

Andrew Hammond: And when you were doing these investigations, how much would you tap into all-source intelligence?

Robert Wittman: We would do Title III wiretaps, you know, listening to actors involved. I had one case where I was working with the OCBC in Paris. And we had some individuals in Miami who were offering to sell me pieces that were stolen from the Isabella Stark Gardner Museum in 1990. There was a big heist there. And these guys had supposedly these pieces in Marseille. And so we were working with them with wiretaps and working with the French government to identify who these individuals were. Also to find out, as I say, who they were talking to. They were talking to individuals in Basque country in Spain as well. So these groups are international and they work all together to try to raise money and steal. Ultimately, they said that they had more than 30 stolen paintings all for me to buy. And all these different groups from around France and Spain had put them together. They were looking for a buyer. And so ultimately, we did recover two Picassos that were stolen in Paris worth about $60 million and four paintings stolen from the Nice Museum at gunpoint that we were able to recover at the same time through that group. So these intelligence agencies all work together to be able to do these things.

Andrew Hammond: I'm wondering, is there any current missing item or case that you would love to see solved?

Robert Wittman: Well, the largest, I guess, the largest single property crime -- I'm talking about property -- in the United States was an art theft from the Isabella Stewart Garner Museum 1990 in Boston on St. Patrick's Day night. Two individuals dressed as Boston police officers, they tricked the two guards that were inside the museum to let them in. And of course, they weren't cops. They were thieves. They tied these two guards up, and they went around the museum for about an hour and some odd minutes, and they stole 13 objects of art. One was a Rembrandt seascape, the only seascape Rembrandt that's known to have done called "The Storm over the Sea of Galilee." And another piece was a Vermeer. It's called "The Concert." It's the only one of 35 in the world, the only one that's missing. So the total value of that heist that night was $300 million. So we're talking about a heist of property one time, $300 million. Well, today, fast forward 30 years later, they've never been recovered. And the total value today is about $500 million because of inflation in the art market. And none of those pieces have ever come back. So I would say that I would be very interested to see where they are. I think that the individuals that probably did the theft are not around anymore, but it would be great to be able to recover the paintings themselves because we're talking about, you know, a Vermeer and a Rembrandt seascape, the only one in the world.

Andrew Hammond: That seascape sounds incredible over the Sea of Galilee, and that's still missing?

Robert Wittman: That is still missing. Yeah, it's "The Storm over the Sea of Galilee."

Voiceover: It was the early hours of March 18th, 1990 in Boston, 1:20 a.m. The city's celebration of St. Patrick's Day was winding down, and two guards at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum were about to find themselves involved in the world's single largest art theft. The two thieves, disguised as police officers, tricked their way into the museum by telling the guards that they were dispatched to investigate a Paddy's Day-related disturbance. Once inside the museum, they handcuffed the guards, duct-taped over their eyes and head, and led them down to the basement, where the thieves attached the handcuffs to a steam pipe and workbench, declaring, "Gentlemen, this is a robbery." With the guards trapped in the basement, the two thieves worked quickly in the museum, removing 13 works of art, some of which being among the museum's most prized possessions. Interestingly, they left behind the most valuable painting in the collection, Titian's "Rape of Europa." In total, the theft now values over $500 million. As they left the museum, the thieves took the camera footage of their entrance and removed all records of the security alarms and motion sensors that they set off. They left the guards bound in the basement, and they would not be found until hours later, when the next shift arrived for duty. From start to finish, the heist lasted only 81 minutes. The thieves have never been identified, and the 13 works of priceless art have not yet been recovered. Today, the museum field and FBI alike still wonder the reason behind this theft. In the thousands of pages of evidence, intelligence, and analysis gathered, there is no clear motivation of the thieves. There is no clear pattern amongst the pieces stolen, and remember, they left behind the most valuable piece. Was it purely for the money, maybe for the glory, or some other sinister plot? Well, we may never know. Currently, the museum is offering a $10 million award for information leading to the recovery of the pieces stolen. And to show you just how serious this business is, the only government reward that has ever exceeded this amount is a $25 million bounty offered for Osama Bin Laden.

Andrew Hammond: And tell us a little bit more about your undercover work. I find that really fascinating. So you were undercover for a long period of time. Tell us a little bit more about that, the types of places you went, did you enjoy it? I'm assuming it must have been quite dangerous and scary at certain periods of time as well.

Robert Wittman: Well, there were times when people were threatening to try to kill me.

Andrew Hammond: That's it.

Robert Wittman: We talked about it. I'm here to tell you about it, so it worked out okay. You know, I was undercover in Miami, Santa Fe, New Mexico, St. Louis, in the States, Barcelona, Marseille, Paris, but somebody had to do it, right? It was terrible work. Who wants to be undercover in Paris, Marseille, Barcelona, Madrid?

Andrew Hammond: Poor you. I'm sorry.

Robert Wittman: Everybody feels sorry for me.

Andrew Hammond: Was there ever any time where you were investigating something and the legs of the story ended up reaching to all kinds of places? So you start off, you're just looking for a work of art and then the next thing you know, you're in different cities, you're dealing with organized crime groups. I'm just trying to get a sense of, you know, when you stumble into something and then you realize that you've only seen the tip of the iceberg and there's so much else that's going on.

Robert Wittman: Oh, sure. Anytime you get involved with any type of organized activities, there's always going to be what we call a gateway crime. So the original art theft is just a gateway crime because that group's doing everything else. There's very few specialized art theft groups. Most of these gangs that are involved in doing these kinds of robberies are doing, you know, car theft. They're selling drugs. They're moving illicit arms, that type of thing. So they're into everything, armed robbery. And They just happened to do an art heist too, which is what we call the gateway crime. It got us into the group. Just one example of that was the group in Miami that I was telling you about earlier that what I was doing, I was undercover to try to obtain "The Storm Over the Sea of Galilee," the Rembrandt from the Gardner heist, as well as the Vermeer. Those were the two I was chasing. We had made a deal to buy those for $30 million, okay? And this group out of Marseille, who supposedly had these paintings, they came back to us and said, okay, we've also got these four Picassos. Those two paintings they were talking about, just the tip of the iceberg, the two Picassos, the four pieces from the Nice Museum in France, all stolen. So we didn't know anything about those until we got into the case. And all of a sudden, it starts to develop, you go further and further. So there's always more than what you start out with.

Andrew Hammond: And when you were going undercover, could you give us an example of when you went undercover that particularly sticks out in your memory? Maybe it's an example that you use when you're giving your lectures and discussing your various courses.

Robert Wittman: Yeah, well, you know, sometimes you want to talk about mistakes that you might use. And it's funny because I was always an art authenticator for a mob group or an art professor. And I tried to use those types of covers because it's less violent than a thief or even a shady dealer who was not involved in violence, but more in selling the material. So it was interesting that I wasn't worried so much about guns and knives. The bad guys had them, but I didn't need them because they wanted to do a deal with me and they wanted money. And that's what I offered, right? So getting involved with killing me wasn't a good idea because then they wouldn't get the money. So I just, you know, I remember mistakes that were made. I can remember one time, you know, generally I use cash for everything, but I would take somebody out in say a fraud case or a forgery case. And at that point, because it's not an organized crime group, you know, you would use a credit card. And I'll never forget, I was in a cafe in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and I was working on a group and we had dinner. And so I took out my credit card and I paid for the dinner, my undercover credit card. It wasn't my real name. But when I got the bill, I signed my real name, not thinking, you know, just how you sign a credit card bill. You just don't think about it. Why sign my real name? I thought, well, how do I fix that? You know, it's a different name that's on the actual credit card. So one of the I guess, rules of working undercover is always to use your real first name. So if you're Robert, you're Robert, you know, you're Bob, you're not going to change that. And the reason for that is if you happen to be in a position where someone knows you and they say, hey, Bob, they call you, that doesn't blow your cover. And that actually happened to me in the Philadelphia airport a few times. So it can be a situation where you use the first name, but I didn't have the same last name. So in this case, I had to try to really quickly scratch out the other name and put the undercover last name in. But I never did it but once. It only happened one time and I learned my lesson to pay attention, you know. So these things can happen. These are just small things that, you know, people do and don't think about it and it could be a problem.

Andrew Hammond: And your undercover last name, that would change around depending on the operation?

Robert Wittman: I tried to keep it the same as long as I could. At one point, it was blown, though, because I did a case and it was that Santa Fe case and the individuals were interviewed by the newspapers after they were indicted and they told the newspapers my undercover name. So they kind of blew my cover.

Andrew Hammond: Can you tell us what it was?

Robert Wittman: Yeah, it was Bob Clay. So they said, you know, this guy named Bob Clay came into our shops and he was an FBI agent. And so, you know, that was it. I was in the newspapers and kind of killed the undercover name. So I changed it. But I changed it to Bob Shay. And that way I could remember it, using Clay, I could remember Shay because it rhymed. But yeah, it had no resemblance to the other name.

Andrew Hammond: And tell us a little bit more about living your cover. What was your persona? How did you build it up? And, you know, did you go to the FBI and say, you know, I'm going to be someone that's involved in these paintings and high value pieces of cultural property? I'm going to need a Yogo Boss. I'm going to need, you know, a really fancy watch, et cetera. Or would that not fly with your bosses?

Robert Wittman: The undercover unit has access to all of that. I mean, if you need to buy certain clothes, you can get the funds to buy clothes. And when it comes to jewelry, they have all kinds of jewelry and watches, that type of thing. They're all seizures that have been forfeited to the government. So there's vaults full of that stuff to be used. In one case, I had gotten some watches, and I needed to have diamonds to pay my bad guys. So we basically took the diamonds out of watches that the FBI had seized, and I had them popped out and used those to actually pay people. So you know, the watches served a double purpose. I had a $25,000 Rolex that I would wear occasionally full of diamonds, you know, when I wanted to prove that type of thing. I didn't usually do that too often, though, because that makes you a target of being robbed, and not by the bad guys you're working with, just on the street. So why invite that, you know? That wasn't something I really needed to do. So I didn't flap. You know, another tenet of working undercover for me, and I wouldn't say it's for everybody, but for me, was to keep everything as real as possible. Because you know, for example, if you have three children, you say you had three children. And you could say their real first names, because their last names weren't known. So the idea there is that, you know, some of these cases, you might be undercover for six months. One point I was undercover for three years in a case. And you know, how do you remember what you said three years ago if it's a lie? So if you keep it close to the vest, you keep it straight, you keep yourself honest, you know, it's much easier to remember facts than it is lies.

Andrew Hammond: And tell us a little bit more about "Priceless." What prompted you to write the book?

Robert Wittman: Yeah, when I retired in 2008 from the Bureau, like I said, I started my own company, Robert Wittman Incorporated, where we do all these other types of art duties, you know. But I also wrote two books. The first one was called "Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures." And that's a New York Times bestseller, it's in 15 languages around the world. And basically, that's a memoir of my career at the FBI, talking about different cases, chronological from the beginning till I retired. And maybe I highlighted a dozen different cases, maybe 10 undercover cases, talking about the specifics, places like Warsaw, Poland and Denmark and Spain, Peru, Ecuador. And so I guess, the motivation for writing the book was to get the word out how important cultural heritage is. It really is important to make the public realize that this is an important program that should be supported by law enforcement, both local and federal. The second book is called "The Devil's Diary: Alfred Rosenberg and the Stolen Secrets of the Third Reich." I wrote that in 2016. And that's about a recovery we did for the U.S. Holocaust Museum. After I retired from the Bureau, the museum contacted my company and asked us to do an investigation and try to recover a diary that was written between 1935 and 1946 by Alfred Rosenberg. Rosenberg was the chief civil scientist for the Third Reich, for the Nazis. He met Adolf Hitler in 1919 when Hitler was just infiltrating the Nazis to see what they were doing. And in fact, he was the one who created -- in many ways, he created Adolf Hitler. He's the guy who had all the theories about the Aryan nation, the ladder, the stepladder of races, the destruction of the Jews. That was all Alfred Rosenberg's idea. So from 1935 to 1946, he wrote this 400-page diary, which was recovered by Patton's troops at the end of the war and was used at the Nuremberg trial. Rosenberg was one of the first 10 Nazis that was executed. After the Nuremberg trials, he was hung in October 1946. The diary went missing. One of the prosecutors at the Nuremberg trial stole it, took it back to Pennsylvania, believe it or not, Philadelphia. And it was never transcribed, never translated. And so it was a mystery of what was in it. And remember now, this is a first-person narrative of the highest reaches of the Third Reich, discussions with Adolf Hitler. And Rosenberg had that access. So the Holocaust Museum wanted to try to get this diary back. It belonged to the National Archives. But they were interested in seeing what he wrote, you know, in that 400 pages. Because believe it or not, and I didn't know this, nowhere is it actually written that Adolf Hitler was part of the Holocaust. You know, they always kept everything at arm's length. Like at the Wannsee Conference, where it was decided they used their deputies, none of them went. So it was all about plausible deniability. And so the museum wanted to see if Rosenberg actually wrote in his diary, "Today we discussed the Holocaust." And it was really close to that, but not specific. But he says things a lot like that in the diary, and a lot of other interesting things too.

Andrew Hammond: So the diary was found?

Robert Wittman: We found the diary ultimately after a three-month investigation. We got it in Lewiston, New York, near Niagara Falls. The first third of the book is the investigation to recover it. The rest of the book is what's in the diary itself. And you know, what we did was we put it in the context, what was happening during the war and what his diary notations were saying. So it's a very interesting thing to hear his take on what was going on in actuality.

Andrew Hammond: That's incredible. I remember the Hitler diaries, there were these diaries that came out, I'm sure you've heard of them. And they were fake, but they got an expert to verify them, and it was the Regis Professor of History at Oxford, who's a pretty unimpeachable source. And he said they were the real deal, but they weren't. And I don't think his reputation ever really recovered from that.

Robert Wittman: Yeah. I mean, that's the problem when you pull somebody in who makes an absolute decision, you know, it could be a problem if they're not right.

Andrew Hammond: Yeah. And I'm just wondering, do you have another book that you're working on or anything that our listeners can look forward to?

Robert Wittman: Always looking. Well, I think the listeners should pick up the first two.

Andrew Hammond: Of course. They're interesting.

Robert Wittman: "Priceless", and "The Devil's Diary." The Devil's Diary is actually in 30 languages now. It's in every country from Portugal all the way to Turkey. And also Korea, China, Taiwan and Japan. But you know, right this minute, I'm not writing anything new. It takes a lot of work. It's not easy. And it's the type of thing where you really have to have a drive, a reason for doing it.

Andrew Hammond: Well, thanks ever so much for speaking to me. It's been a pleasure talking to you. I learned a lot, and it's been a really enjoyable chat. And if you ever come to DC, please let us know, and we'd be happy to give you a tour of the museum.

Robert Wittman: I would love to, Andrew. Thank you. It'd be fun. [ Music ]

Andrew Hammond: Thanks for listening to this episode of "SpyCast". Please follow us on Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. If you have feedback, you can reach us by email at spycast@spymuseum.org or on Twitter @INTLSpyCast. If you go to our page at thecyberwire.com /podcast/spycast, you can find links to further resources, detailed show notes and full transcripts. I'm your host, Andrew Hammond, and my podcast content partner is Erin Dietrick. The rest of the team involved in the show is Mike Mincey, Memphis Vaughn III, Emily Coletta, Emily Renz, Afua Anokwa, Elliott Peltzman, Tré Hester and Jen Eiben. This show is brought to you from the home of the world's preeminent collection of intelligence and espionage-related to artifacts, the International Spy Museum. [ Music ]