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It takes a sleuth

The FBI's Robert K. Wittman recovered more than $225 million in stolen arts and artifacts. Sometimes, he restored history to its rightful owners.

Adapted from "Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures," copyright 2010 by Robert K. Wittman with John Shiffman, Inquirer staff writer. It was published this week by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House Inc.

When you work undercover, it's always a good idea to greet an out-of-town target at the airport.

A guy just getting off a plane is less likely to be carrying a weapon.

On a frigid day in 1998, I met Civil War artifact collector Charlie Wilhite a few minutes after his flight from Kansas City landed at Philadelphia International Airport. We ducked into a shuttle bus headed to the nearby Embassy Suites.

Wilhite was a middle-aged, gangly man with a pale face and a bad blond comb-over. He wore cowboy boots and spoke with a Southern drawl.

When we got to the hotel room, I poured a pair of Cokes and set them on a table in full view of the hidden surveillance camera.

"Welcome to Philadelphia," I said.

"Well thank you, Bob."

"First visit?"

"Yeah," he said. "Hopefully it'll be a memorable one."

"Hope so."

We both laughed.

By using my true first name, I was following a cardinal rule of working undercover: Keep the lies to a minimum. The more lies you tell, the more you have to remember.

Wilhite believed I was some sort of shady Civil War dealer, a guy who worked both sides of the legal and illicit art and antiquities markets. He didn't know my true identity: Special Agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Nor did he know anything about my past: How the son of a Baltimore antique dealer joined the FBI in Philadelphia in 1988, developed an expertise in art crime and undercover work, and how I would, over a twenty-year career, eventually recover more than $225 million in stolen art and antiquities.

My career in art crime had begun the first month I reported for duty in Philadelphia, when the sculpture that inspired the Impressionist movement was stolen from the Rodin Museum on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Shortly afterward, my mentor, FBI agent Bob Bazin, won me a spot in a coveted year-long art history class at the Barnes Foundation in Merion.

Some 42 art-crime investigations would follow: I would rescue paintings by Rembrandt and Rockwell, a missing copy of the Bill of Rights, the headdress Geronimo wore at the Last Pow-Wow, and the original manuscript of Pearl Buck's The Good Earth. I would work undercover in Santa Fe, Madrid, Copenhagen, Miami and Warsaw. I would found the national FBI Art Crime Team.

But I'll always look back at that day in Philadelphia in 1998 as one of my proudest undercover moments.

Wilhite pulled from his bag a neatly folded red, white, and blue cloth - a nineteenth-century American flag in fine condition.

He unfolded the flag roughly and draped it over a small round table. My eyes fixed smartly on the thirty-five gold stars in the blue corner square, and I shuddered as Wilhite manhandled this antiquity, knocking flecks of gold leaf from the stars to the hotel carpet.

This was the battle flag of the Twelfth Regiment Infantry, Corps d'Afrique, a near-sacred artifact in African American history, one of only five such flags to survive the Civil War. The historical property tag - "HP 108.62" - attached by Army curators in the 1960s was still affixed to the lower left edge of the banner.

Wilhite caught my eye and smiled. "Beautiful, ain't she?"

"Looks good to me, Charlie," I said.

As an amateur Civil War collector, I knew that regimental flags were not ceremonial. Soldiers who carried the flags served as beacons for troops to follow in the chaos of battle. Each side tried to kill the other's flag-bearers, eager to cut off a unit's chief means of communication. To carry a regiment's colors into battle was considered a great honor, but also a great risk.

This battle flag also carried special significance - the Twelfth was among the first African American U.S. Army regiments to see major battle. They called the flag a "blood cloth" because at least five soldiers died carrying it.

Now, as I held the frayed flag by its four corners in the hotel room, I considered arresting Wilhite right then - signal the SWAT team and hope Wilhite resisted. But I wanted more. I wanted to crawl inside his mind. How could a self-described Civil War buff be so callous, so eager to seek to profit from a piece of stolen history?

I eased back in my chair and sipped my Coke. "Did you ever find out where it came from?"

From a museum, he said. "I'm telling you this upfront."

This was going to be easy. Wilhite liked to hear himself talk. I said, "You're afraid someone will see it?" In other words, you know this is stolen property?

"Yeah," he said. Wilhite unfolded a long tale about buying the flag from someone during a Civil War show in Chicago, a cash deal consummated in a parking garage.

I changed tactics, curious if I could get him to admit that he knew men died carrying this flag in battle. "Charlie," I said, "you know much about the flag?"

"I've been told there are only five of these in existence, for colored troops."

"Colored troops? Is that the same as Corps d'Afrique?"

"Yeah, they mustered in Louisiana and saw distinguished service in Tennessee. You can look it up."

I had. "Did they have a lot of losses?"

"They had a lot of losses, yeah. They saw combat. They wasn't just scrubbing pots, whatever, like the colored troop they made a movie on, the Massachusetts group. That's what makes the piece for me."

A lot of losses. That's what makes the piece for me. I masked my anger with a swig of Coke. I said, "When you heard the history, you didn't have any problem keeping it, as far as that's concerned?"

Wilhite was tipping back in the chair now, one boot on the table, hands clasped behind his head. "Me? No. I paid a lot of money for it." He pointed a bony finger at me. "Now, how you handle and market it is your business. But you want to be discreet."

"Right, because we could get in a lot of trouble," I said.

"Right," he said.

I had more than enough now. "Twenty-eight thousand," I said. "Cash OK?"

"Yeah, if it's a cashier's check, I've got to show that to Uncle Sam and I'd like to see if I can get around that."

I started to stand, thinking, I'll be sure to let the IRS boys know.

Wilhite said, "Isn't it a great piece? I told you it was."

"It is," I said, twisting my nose with my thumb and forefinger - the go-sign. "It could only come from a museum."

"Yes, sir -"

Wilhite's head snapped to the right as FBI agents in raid gear rushed in.

Wilhite would plead guilty to concealment of a stolen object of culture heritage. Because he developed cancer and because the sentencing guidelines for cultural heritage theft were low at the time, the judge gave him three years' probation. He died in 2000.

The case became a catalyst for the U.S. Sentencing Commission to increase the penalty for theft of cultural heritage items.

I've found that I can read up on a stolen artifact, talk to experts about it, even hold it in my hands as the bad guys explain its black market value. But I know I won't truly appreciate an object's deeper meaning until I'm able to return it to its rightful owner.

At a ceremony later in Washington, FBI Director Louis Freeh handed the battle flag to the Army's chief historian, Brig. Gen. John S. Brown.

"For soldiers always, the flag has captured the essence of everything that they are fighting for," Brown said. "It is all that is on the battlefield with them when they face death. I think it's particularly fitting that this flag represents men who rose to fight against slavery for themselves and their families and . . . secured their freedom and all their descendants' for all the generations to come. It was the first in many steps of trying to affirm the American dream that all people are equal."

Joseph Lee, who leads a Philadelphia-based re-enactors group, took the podium in the Union blue full replica regalia of the U.S. Colored Troops, Third Regiment. He recalled visiting me at my FBI office, shortly after the undercover sting.

"Touching that flag sent chills through my body. Even thinking about it now, tears well in my eyes. They cause my heart to palpitate. Because this was true, living African American history. I had heard about it, read about it, dreamt about it, but now I was part of it."

Watch video of the undercover sting at EndText

Author Appearances

Robert K. Wittman will be speaking:

Tuesday: 6 p.m. at the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 3260 South St. Public: $10; members: $5; students: free.

June 22: 7:30 p.m. at the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St. Free.

June 27: Noon at Greshville Antiques & Fine Art, 1041 Reading Ave. (Route 562), Boyertown. Free.