For decades, European countries like England, France and Spain have had large investigative teams dedicated to investigating crimes in the art world.
The FBI had two agents.
“One guy was doing Sotheby’s and Christie’s (in New York) and I was doing everything else.” said retired FBI agent Robert K. Wittman. “We needed to build a team to put ourselves in the same position as other countries.”
Wittman, who recovered over $300 million in arts/cultural assets during his 20 years with the bureau before retiring in 2008, will share stories about starting the FBI Arts Crime Team and some of the high-profile cases he solved in “Art Crime and the FBI: How Masterpieces Are Stolen and Recovered,” the first of a series of three talks beginning Wednesday at the Medici Museum of Art in Howland.
In many ways, art crime is no different from other crimes – “Theft is theft” Wittman said – but the job required specialist knowledge.
“It’s knowing where to look” he said. “If you have a car theft, you will go to the shops in town. With art theft, you need to know where to look to find a particular type of artwork or collectible. »
The Arts Crime team investigates cases involving fine art as well as cultural heritage objects, which cover everything from Rembrandt paintings to Superman comics and baseball cards to historical artifacts.
A Rembrandt painting worth $35 million was the most valuable piece he collected in his career. But equally important to Wittman was the recovery of a battle flag carried by the 12th Regiment Africa Corps at the Battle of Fort Hudson during the Civil War. The 12th Regiment was made up of African American soldiers.
“Being the flag bearer is a huge honor” says Wittman. “These troops were fighting for their freedom and the freedom of all generations to come. This flag was valued at $35,000, but I think they both have the same cultural significance. Money doesn’t matter. That’s what they represent.
One of the cases Wittman has investigated during his career relates to an ongoing exposure to the Medici. In 1978, seven Norman Rockwell paintings were stolen from a Minneapolis gallery. The paintings were owned by Brown & Bigelow, the printing company that made the Boy Scout calendars that regularly featured Rockwell’s work. More than 20 years later, the FBI recovered two of the paintings in Philadelphia, and this arrest led to the discovery of three additional paintings in Brazil.
A study for one of these salvaged Boy Scout paintings is included in the Rockwell Collection owned by the Boy Scouts of America which hangs in Medici.
Other programs in the series are “Art crime: frauds, forgery and forgery” May 4 and “Art Crime: History in Peril – Steal and Recover Lost Nazi Diary” June 1.
Counterfeits are a bigger problem than most people realize, and in many cases the deception is unintentional.
“It has been estimated by knowledgeable people that 50% of the artwork in the museum can be wrongly attributed, meaning it’s not by the person they think it is,” says Wittman. “With some 19th century French artists, there are more paintings than they ever made…Throughout history, it was acceptable for art students to copy paintings. There is paintings of students in the Louvre copying paintings. After hundreds of years (authenticity is hard to trace). You have to be careful what you buy.”