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An FBI agent who recovered world’s stolen treasures

Robert K. Wittman Photo: Billie Feng

Many Chinese people are familiar with the image of FBI agents in Hollywood movies, but not many of them have ever encountered a real FBI agent.

Robert K. Wittman,a former FBI undercover agent, was invited to Beijing on a publicity tour for the Chinese version of his memoir, Priceless. Wittman was a highly decorated FBI special agent assigned to the Philadelphia Field Division from 1988 to 2008. He said, “The reason I wrote this book is not because I wanted to make money, but I want you to enjoy the stories and learn about cultural property protection.”

As an FBI agent, Wittman’s specialty was to recover stolen art and cultural property owned by nations, institutions and museums. Owing to his specialized training in art, antiques, jewelry and gem identification, Wittman served as the FBI’s top investigator and coordinator in cases involving art theft and fraud. He was the founder of the FBI’s Art Crime Team. During his 20 years’ service, Wittman has recovered more than $300 million worth of stolen art and cultural property, including one of the original 14 copies of the Bill of Rights stolen by a union soldier in April 1865 (valued at $30 million), Rembrandt’s 1630 “Self-Portrait” stolen in an armed robbery in December 2000 (valued at $36 million) and a Crystal Ball that once belonged to the Chinese Empress Dowager Cixi.

Rembrandt’s 1630 “Self-Portrait” Photo: Baidu.com

Wittman said, “No matter how much time goes by, there is always hope that we can get our stolen property back.”

Wittman was born in Tokyo, Japan in 1955 to a Japanese mother and American father. He attended Towson University and received a BA degree in Political Science in 1980. He applied to the FBI when he was 23 but was turned down because of lack of work experience. After that, he worked for a Maryland agricultural newspaper started by his father. But he never gave up his dream of becoming an FBI agent. He worked for the newspaper for nine years. In this job, he learned how to be an effective salesman, a skill to which he attributes his later success in undercover operations. One day in 1988, his wife Donna showed him an FBI want ad in a newspaper. He was 32 years old at that time, married, and had children. Being an FBI agent would mean less income and less time with family. But Donna understood that working for the FBI was her husband’s lifelong dream. In order to pass the physical test, he had to practice running on the playground and Donna and his two kids kept him good company. “If it was not for her, I couldn’t have done anything,” Wittman said. 

In his opinion, recovering stolen art and cultural property is far more important than bringing the criminals to justice. Unlike ordinary items, art and cultural property doesn’t belong to any individual. Each work of art is a historic record of the entire human race and a thief might destroy what he has stolen to cover up his crime. Once a work of art is destroyed, the history is lost. “It’s our job to protect them for our young people. When that material is destroyed, our children will never be able to see it or touch the history,” Wittman said.

Robert Wittman signs books for Chinese readers. Photo: Billie Feng

Now, art crime is the fifth largest international crime, only behind drugs, money laundering, weapons and human slavery and tracing art criminals involves travelling around the world. Wittman has worked in 22 countries. Working abroad made him realize that many developed countries had their own art crime teams but the US didn’t. “There were just two people, myself and another FBI agent Dukes in the whole country. So I went to the headquarters and said I wanted to create this team.” Founded in 2005, the first art crime team had only eight agents. Now the number has increased to 14 agents, and they have recovered over 1,000 works of art worth more than $150 million. 

Being an undercover FBI agent, Wittman faced danger on every mission. He always pretended to be an art broker or collector and went alone to meet criminals. Sometimes he was not sure whether his true identity had not been discovered by the criminal, so he risked being attacked or even killed by the criminal any moment during a meeting.

However, he enjoyed the danger. It is not that he cared little about his family; instead he loved his wife and kids very much. Every time he went on a mission, he would make a phone call to his wife, telling her he loved her. The call usually lasted only one or two minutes. She didn’t ask where he was and what he was going to do. She knew she shouldn’t ask these questions. But Wittman said the call could really make him calm down and act prudently. When the general manager of the publishing house invited him to China, the only thing he asked was whether his wife could come together.

Donna Wittman Photo: Billie Feng

Each case Wittman handled could be made into a brilliant movie. The difference, he said, is that “actors have many chances to do different takes but we have only one chance.”

Wittman retired in 2008 and started his own company Robert Wittman Inc, which provides art recovery and collection management services for museums and individual collectors. According to him, China has become the No. 1 art market in the world, but 70 percent of the works of art are forgeries. He said he never got involved in any cases in China before retirement, but he hoped his company would have the opportunity to work with related departments of China in the future, such as the Ministry of Culture.


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Rhythm Media Group is a multi-media company, operating a US-based Chinese daily newspaper, The China Press, and the paper's website - uschinapress.com (which has mobile-app version), as well as a Beijing-based English website Sino-US.com. The group boasts 15 branch offices across the US, and a number of cultural centers focusing on culture-related business in the North America, Chinese mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

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