Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures by Robert K Wittman

priceless cover

This may be one of my most surprising reads of the year.

I'm not sure what I expected when I picked up Priceless, but I didn't expect to learn things about art from it.  I didn't expect to find it so touching or moving it brought me to tears.  And I didn't expect it to be as gripping and un-put-downable as any fictional thriller.

Robert K. Wittman was the founder of the FBI's art crime team and the only full-time undercover agent on the team from 2005 until his retirement in 2008.  Priceless is basically the memoir of his decision to join the FBI, how he founded the crime team, and the more awesomer cases he investigated (including the Gardner Museum heist, which is actually what the book opens with).  Every chapter focuses on one case, and the variety of stolen objects in the book and their history is really fascinating.  The French have a phrase: lieu de mémoire, which is basically the idea that places are imbued with the memory of the events that happened there.  If places can absorb memory, why not objects?  The items Wittman covers in the course of his career are valuable, but what makes them priceless is the history associated with them.  There is no doubt in my mind that Wittman sees himself as a crusader against people who would rob the world of its history.

What sorts of people steal, buy, and sell stolen art?  Like most Americans, when I hear the term art theft I relate it to movies--like To Catch a Thief with Cary Grant or The Thomas Crown Affair.  But Wittman says those involved in art crime aren't just sophisticated art lovers--although they certainly steal and finance art crime, as well.  In fact, you can come across any type of person in an art crimes investigation--educated, idiotic, rich, poor, art lovers and those who could care less; terrorists, petty crooks, and diplomats.  There is nothing that unifies the world of art crime--nothing except greed.

I mentioned that I learned about art while reading this book, but I didn't necessarily mean its history.  I meant the way I look at it and think of teaching it.  Wittman's perspective was something I was totally unfamiliar with; but it was refreshing and really helped me with prepping for my class.  Even if you're not an art historian, I think Wittman can make you look at art in new ways, too.

Aside from all that, what makes this book truly successful is the honesty with which Wittman shares his story.  He's very up-front about his experiences and feelings, even when it's not complimentary to himself or his career.  To be sure, he comes off smelling like roses--but more because the reader sympathizes with him as a "character" and less because he prevaricates about situations to make himself look good.  This is the type of book that could have been "just the facts," but Wittman (or John Shiffman) adds the emotion, anger, anxiety, and triumphs of his personal story, and it pays off by making the book richer and more engaging than I ever would have expected.

Priceless is definitely worth picking up, especially if you're at all interested in art crime.  How can you go wrong reading a book by someone who's actually been in the trenches fighting art crime first-hand?  Apparently you can't, at least not with this book.

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