Retired FBI Agent Solves Arts Crimes Including a Missing Nazi Diary, Confederate Relics and Even Batmobiles
Art crimes expert Robert K. Wittman, a retired FBI agent, this year published a new book — “The Devil’s Diary: Alfred Rosenberg and the Stolen Secrets of the Third Reich” — with a Philadelphia twist.
It’s the story of Lansdowne lawyer Robert Kempner, who until his death held on to a startling secret — he’d prosecuted Nazi officers at Nuremberg, and purloined the private diary of Hitler’s favorite ideologue Alfred Rosenberg.
But that is just the latest crime he’s solved. Wittman joined the FBI as a special agent in 1988, and was drawn to art crimes not longer after starting work at the federal agency. His mentor suggested taking art appreciation classes at the Barnes Foundation when it was still located on the Main Line.
As a result of that and other specialized training in art, antiques, jewelry and gem identification, he served as the FBI’s investigative expert involving cultural property crime. During his 20-year FBI career he helped recover more than $300 million worth of stolen art and cultural property.
Wittman, in 2005, created the FBI’s rapid deployment national Art Crime Team, and represented the U.S. conducting investigations and instructing international police and museums in recovering stolen works and in security techniques.
He retired in 2008. In 2010, Wittman penned his first book — The New York Times bestselling memoir “Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures.” His second book, “The Devil’s Diary,” co-authored with journalist David Kinney, ranks also as a best seller, published in 26 languages in 30 countries.
Today, Wittman works for himself as president of Robert Wittman Inc., specializing in consulting on art matters, which include expert witness testimony, security, investigations and collection management. A Chester Springs resident, Wittman remains a huge fan of the Barnes collection — and believes the move into center city was the right one.
“I went through the Barnes training program in 1991. Then later, I worked with the then-directors of the Barnes on their security, because the windows in the old house weren’t even locked. The HV/AC needed upgrades, and the paintings needed conservation. [The collection] was made for the world, and it’s really put Philadelphia on the map.”
Wittman’s worked for clients such as the owner of a private library of 10,000 books, including first editions of Tom Sawyer, pages from an original Guttenberg bible, and manuscripts authored by Theodore Roosevelt.
“The collection hadn’t been looked at in 45 or 50 years, and we had to cut the locks off of steamer trunks just to take a look and form a complete list,” he recalls. After inventory, Wittman valued the collection “in the millions of dollars,” in part due to an original Shakespeare folio — itself worth six figures.
Spotting forgeries is the key part of Wittman’s business — as is establishing true provenance for a works of art, cars, antiques, sports memorabilia and militaria. Wittman estimates the total global art market at $200 billion — $80 billion of that in the U.S. Art crimes represent roughly $6 billion of the world total.
“Believe it or not, all four major U.S. sports markets total $26 billion and the art market $80 billion. We love our art.”
And it’s not just phony paintings he investigates. There are forged baseball cards, Confederate belt buckles, even fake replica Batmobiles. One of Wittman’s recent clients bought $300,000 worth of paintings on the Internet from a dozen or so galleries.
“We just found out the paintings were all fake. Like any investment vehicle, you have to check provenance,” or where and how the work was obtained, he warns.
When valuing art and collectibles, “it’s a three-legged stool: authenticity, legal title, and provenance. It helps to use an art advisor, and get promises of what you’re buying in writing first.”
Wittman grew up around collectors; his father and mother ran an Asian antiques store, and while they never made much money, he learned to love the trade. Favorites in his own collection? Japanese ceramics, Civil War relics, fine art prints like Miro and Dali, and some Asian art.
“My most expensive piece probably isn’t worth more than $2,000 or $3,000.”
What does he recommend for art lovers buying anything above that price?
“If you are buying art as an investment, I’d use an art advisor. Collectors in high value art want to show it off. There’s a lot of serious collectors in Philadelphia, because there’s still a lot of old money.”
Wittman still gets phone calls in the middle of the night when art thieves strike.
“I can do a lot more now that I’m not an FBI agent, because before I could only do criminal case. Now I can do civil work as well as testifying as an expert witness,” he says.
Recently, Wittman worked the case of a stolen piece of glass that was on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Originally owned by the founding family of the Wistar Institute, the piece had been stolen in the 1980s, hoarded in a storage unit, then later sold to an art dealer in New York.
The dealer resold the glass to a buyer for tens of thousands of dollars and it was put on display under consignment at the PMA.
“It took a year, but we proved it was stolen from Wistar — and now the family own it again.”
The piece is still on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art — but with the rightful owner on the label.