Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Retired FBI agent solves arts crimes including a missing Nazi diary, Confederate relics, even Batmobiles

Art-crimes expert Robert K. Wittman, a retired FBI agent, this year published a tale of Nazi Germany with a Philadelphia twist: The Devil's Diary: Alfred Rosenberg and the Stolen Secrets of the Third Reich.

It's the story of Lansdowne lawyer Robert Kempner, who until his death held on to a startling secret: He had prosecuted Nazi officers at Nuremberg, and purloined the private diary of Hitler's favorite ideologue, Alfred Rosenberg.

But that's just the latest crime solved by Wittman, who lives in Chester Springs. He joined the FBI as a special agent in 1988 and was drawn to art crimes not long after. His mentor suggested taking art-appreciation classes at the Barnes Foundation when it was still on the Main Line.

As a result of that and other specialized training in art, antiques, jewelry, and gem identification, Wittman served as the FBI's investigative expert on cultural-property crime. During his 20-year FBI career, he helped recover more than $300 million worth of stolen art and cultural property.

In 2005, he created the FBI's rapid-deployment national art crime team and represented the United States in conducting investigations and instructing international police and museums on recovering stolen works and security techniques. He retired in 2008.

In 2010, Wittman penned his first book -- the New York Times best-selling memoir Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures, written with former Inquirer reporter John Shiffman. The Devil's Diary, coauthored with journalist David Kinney, of Haddonfield, also ranks 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, including expert-witness testimony, security, investigations, and collection management. He remains a huge fan of the Barnes collection -- and believes the move to 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 HVAC needed upgrades, and the paintings needed conservation. [The collection] was made for the world, and it's really put Philadelphia on the map."

Wittman has 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 Gutenberg Bible, and manuscripts written 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 the true provenance of artworks, 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 about $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 adviser, 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 adviser. 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 cases. 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 Art Museum.

"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 Art Museum -- but with the rightful owner on the label.