ELKHART — Art is cultural heritage, former FBI art detective Robert Wittman told women of the Four Arts Club on Monday.
“It’s important to our culture, to our heritage,” Wittman said. “(Art) represents more than just the object itself. It represents the human genius that went into creating these materials.”
Wittman was a guest Monday at the Midwest Museum of American Art, which agreed to host the renowned agent for the Four Arts Club’s meeting.
Recovering nearly $300 million in stolen art and cultural property, Wittman has found the golden art of a Peruvian warrior king, an Auguste Rodin sculpture that inspired the impressionist movement, the headdress Geronimo wore to his final pow wow, and the original copy of the Bill of Rights, to name a few.
Wittman is responsible for the foundation of the FBI’s elite Art Crime Team. Retired from FBI service, he has remained in the art security and recovery industry with Robert Wittman Inc., where he and his team specialize in institutions, auction houses, collectors, galleries, insurance companies and nations committed to protecting their cultural assets.
He co-wrote and published, “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,” chronicling just a few of his adventures in the world of art crime.
“It’s interesting because when people talk about art and cultural property, they’re interested in art history and history of the property, but when we’re talking about art crime, it’s more about the art business practices,” Wittman said.
With $200 billion exchanged in the art industry every year, not all purchases are legal.
For Wittman, his career as an art detective began during his service as a special agent with the FBI. After solving cases at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and one at the Rodin Museum, he was sent to the Gemological Institute of America in Santa Monica, California, and other schools, becoming trained in recovering items of high value.
“It requires a lot of research into what has been taken, and knowing the markets,” he said.
Wittman recounted several stories of art theft from various countries and museums, including both successful and unsuccessful retrievals.
The Pennsbury Manor in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, was the victim of one unsuccessful investigation. The site is a reconstruction of William Penn’s home along the Delaware River. It contains a substantial collection of 17th-century furniture and objects, demonstrations and hands-on activities for museum guests to explore.
In February 1996, three local men broke into the museum and stole 40 items from the home. They successfully evaded the police until about six weeks later, when one man was arrested for a theft at a local pizza place.
In exchange for less time, the man gave the names of his accomplices, and told officials that the artifacts were stored in his girlfriend’s garage. When officials arrived at his girlfriend’s house, the artifacts had been dumped into the Delaware River, and a diving crew was brought in to assist in the recovery. Objects made of silver sank to the bottom, and were recovered, but wooden objects had floated down the river, including a jewelry box owned by Penn’s second wife, Hannah. It was replaced for $75,000, but it will never be the one Hannah Penn once owned.
“We lost all of this cultural heritage that had been in this country for over 300 years,” Wittman said.
The charges were the first use of the 1994 Theft of Major Artwork statute, which made it a federal crime to take from a museum or gallery.
“It’s not just property values, it’s our history and it matters,” Wittman said.