Retired FBI art recovery agent Bob Wittman spent his entire career based in the Philadelphia bureau -- about two decades -- befriending and betraying as a job description. By his reckoning, Wittman has gotten back some $300 million worth of art and cultural property: Geronimo’s eagle feather headdress, a ring with a lock of George Washington’s hair in it and precious artifacts thought to be lost forever. But the most valuable -- and elusive -- art that Wittman says he was this close to recovering, was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990.
Wittman’s account of how those masterpieces slipped away offers a master class in how to plot to get stolen art back, and also how to blow it entirely. And in a tale with roadblocks to spare, was the Boston FBI one of them. Did they sabotage Bob Wittman’s efforts to recover the Gardner art?
The people featured in this episode:
FBI Art Recovery Agent
Bob Wittman, now retired from the agency, is the founder of the FBI’s Art Crime Team. In his
20-year career with the FBI, he recovered more than $300 million worth of cultural property,
including a Rembrandt self-portrait and an original copy of the Bill of Rights. Wittman had dual
expertise as an art expert and an undercover agent, making him uniquely adept at convincing
criminals to sell him stolen art. Wittman went undercover in 2006 to follow up on a tip about the Gardner’s stolen works. A potential recovery hinged on the trust he built with a Corsican gang operating in France and Miami. But Wittman says his efforts were undermined by a territorial
supervisor in the Boston FBI office - a supervisor who did what he could to push Wittman off the case in order to maintain Boston’s sole dominance in the investigation.
Assistant U.S. Attorney
Bob Goldman was an assistant U.S. attorney. He worked alongside Bob Wittman, who was an
agent with the FBI, to investigate and prosecute cases involving stolen art and antiquities. They
were a dynamic law enforcement team whose work was instrumental in convincing the federal
government that it should spend more resources on recovering stolen art. Goldman credits
Wittman’s success to his deep knowledge of the art trade as well as his ease undercover.
Eric Ives was the founding supervisor of the FBI’s Art Crime Team, making him Bob Wittman’s boss for a period of time. “Bob Wittman, in a football analogy, was the quarterback,” Ives says.
“He had the experience and expertise and, unusual to many programs, Bob not only had the art
expertise, but he also was an undercover agent. So it was a rare opportunity for us to take
advantage of his skill set.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney
Dave Hall worked closely with Bob Wittman. He was a special prosecutor assigned to the FBI’s
Art Crime Team at the time of Operation Masterpiece, Wittman’s undercover operation
infiltrating a French gang in pursuit of the stolen Gardner art. Hall says that the reason the
operation fell apart had a lot to do with agents seeking personal glory, instead of focusing on
their duty. He also backs up Wittman’s credibility on the team.
“No one in the FBI had his experience as an undercover in the, you know, art and cultural
property space. And nobody since,” Hall says. “You know, he was one of a kind. So he was a
really, really precious resource at this moment in time in this really important case.”