“Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures” By Robert K. Wittman and John Shiffman

Once again, I went into the Charlotte Mecklenburg library’s audiobook section and checked out this very entertaining yarn.  Combining the genres of autobiography, vignette, and raising awareness for a cause, ex-FBI agent Robert K. Wittman wrote about himself, art, and the thieves he helped catch.  This book also acts as a nice introduction to art history, with his writing about the various back stories behind the artwork he encounters (Stolen and non-stolen).  For those wondering about which art he helped track down, Wittman’s official website has a list.  The only art he didn’t look for fell under categories such as Performance art, Video art, Conceptual art, and Street art.  By the way, if you kidnap a performance artist in action, would it also qualify as an art theft?

I don’t recommend doing that to see if it’s true.

While I enjoyed the book, Wittman made some rather suspicious claims that either compelled me to do some fact checking or remain skeptical.  Such as his claim of Henri Matisse’s Joy of Life as the original modern art painting. This went against my learning, because the Modern art era started earlier than Matisse’s painting.  However, I do not deny Matisse’s influence.

That fell under my “fact checking” category.

The other two problems I had with the book fell under the “skeptical” category.  While Wittman claimed he didn’t intend to smear the FBI, his writing about the screw ups that prevented the retrieval of the art from the Gardner heist definitely revealed some problems in the system. The stories Wittman told of people fame mongering and railroading in their attempt to dominate the operation will leave you going “Yikes.”

Also, for all his protests of FBI operations not at all resembling the operations found in fiction, his advice on how to work as an effective spy reminded me of Michael Weston’s narrations in Burn Notice.

Furthermore, he devotes a section to learning about art at the original Albert Barnes house, which reminded me of the Art of the Steal documentary I watched a few years ago.  Given how much Wittman praised Barnes for bringing art to the American people with his creative exhibitions, I wonder how Wittman felt about the people moving the Barnes collection from the home to a more traditional museum.  On a different note, Wittman does mention some uplifting moments such as helping track down flags that belonged to African-American troops and Native American war bonnets.  Even more uplifting came from the presentation and rituals used to unite the artifacts with the official keepers.
If anyone tried to adapt this into a film, they could turn it into a feel-good movie that showcased the FBI’s positive contributions (save for the Gardner blunder). Plus, we do see some effective teamwork between governments.

Despite the flaws, I recommend a read, or a listen.

Other reviews:

NPR’s Review

Review from the Washington Post

From the Huffington Post

From the New York Times

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