Saturday, March 17, 2012

How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures
Robert K. Wittman with John Shiffman
Crown Publishers, 324 pages.

A book that should be coming soon to a TV screen near you, Priceless is a fearless memoir that is begging for adaptation - and authors Robert Wittman and John Shiffman have even provided writers with at least twelve episodes for the first season. The story of the founder of the FBI Art Crime Team, Priceless succeeds as both crime drama and personal memoir, with Wittman emerging as the classic hero driven by a need for personal redemption. It also serves as a passionate celebration of art and its place in human culture.

Having worked undercover for three decades exposing thieves of humanity's most revered cultural artifacts - a sculpture by Rodin, paintings by Picasso and Rockwell, an original copy of the Bill of Rights - Wittman now delivers the stories behind the successes. It all comes out in an almost episodic format which would make for an ideal transition to the small (or even the big) screen. Wittman is no braggart and the book never feels like an extended press release. He discusses his failures too, both the personal and the professional, a technique which reveals his humanity and turns him from memoirist into a bona fide literary hero. Not surprising, given that the book is written with Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist John Shiffman, who has borrowed the best techniques from literary fiction. The book itself and almost all individual episodes begin in medias res; nor are they afraid to take us into the lives of Wittman and the thieves around him.

The son of an American father and Japanese mother, Wittman came of age in a world hostile to his mixed ancestry. Eventually working his way into the FBI, he himself admits to have been on a collision course with mediocrity until one night, while driving home from a bar, a car accident claims the life of a friend. Stricken with survivor's guilt - and a four year legal battle to prove he was not criminally responsible - Wittman takes to re-evaluating his life. He recalls the moments that brought him the most professional pleasure: the simple recovery of a few items of art. In that moment, an art cop is born.

Wittman is such a fascinating figure that he himself almost overshadows the events of the book, which is no small feat in a book that involves shadowy meetings, suspicious criminals, foreign countries and lost items of treasure. The book at once debunks the myth of Indiana Jones and Thomas Crown only to create a new romance that is entirely its own. Despite eventually heading an entire team of art crime sleuths, Wittman is very much the lone gunmen, whose risky undercover operations are often threatened by FBI bureaucracy or the pride of foreign officials. As one cop tells Wittman, "everyone wants a piece of the cake and everyone wants their face in a picture." Wittman is often left to his own devices; in his efforts to solve the Isabelle Gardner Stewart Museum Heist (still the greatest unsolved theft in America), Wittman is forced to play a game of chess against two opponents: the criminals and his own supervisors.

If there is a tragedy in the book, it's that Wittman himself will never be replaced. He trained no successor and he is so uniquely qualified that its hard to imagine anyone else succeeding as well as he did. Art theft, as he often tells us, is given low priority by law enforcement, at least in North America; considered a victimless crime, it's effect has been neutered by films like The Thomas Crown Affair, which portray art theft as an almost romantic endeavor. But Wittman's book succeeds as a scathing critique of this viewpoint and makes the much-needed argument that in stealing our culture, thieves are hurting humanity at large.

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