Title: Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures
Author: Robert K. Wittman & John Shiffman
Release Date: June 1, 2010
Genre: Memoir, Non-Fiction
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
For almost 20 years, Robert K. Wittman’s was the FBI’s only full-time art crime agent. Over the course of his career, he recovered more than $225 million worth of stolen art. In this memoir, Wittman describes some of his more exciting and famous cases.
I’m a complete sucker for books about art in general, and art crime specifically, so when I first heard about Robert K. Wittman’s memoir, I was incredibly excited. It sounded like an exciting and intriguing book, and I’m happy to say that the experience of reading it did not disappoint in the slightest.
The book is structured by case, and roughly by time. Each chapter focuses on a different case Wittman worked on. Sometimes these cases would overlap, but the entire case, from beginning to end, is covered in one chapter, rather than moving through Wittman’s life chronologically. This makes it incredibly easy to follow and gives the reader a sense of closure at the end of each chapter, getting the satisfaction of the stolen artifact being returned to its rightful owners.
I appreciated that Priceless was never dry or monotonous. I was engaged from beginning to end and never found my attention wandering. The format had a lot to do with this – since each chapter was its own, self-contained story, I knew what to expect. The pace also moved very briskly. Wittman was careful to include all the necessary details and relate knowledge to the reader, but never went overboard or saddled the reader with unnecessary history.
Priceless is also a glimpse into the inner workings of the FBI, and I have to admit, it left me frustrated. Specifically, the book opens and closes with the most famous art crime in United States history, the 1990 heist from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. (Wittman does do an excellent job giving the reader the basic facts about this case, but if you want some in depth reading, definitely check out Ulrich Boser’s The Gardner Heist). I don’t want to ruin the story or give away any details, but it was the last case Wittman worked on, and clearly it was unsuccessful, as the stolen art is still missing. But the reason for the bungling, as well as the internal politics, were incredibly irritating for someone like Wittman and the reader, who just want to see the stolen art returned.
Wittman’s memoir is an incredibly exciting and engaging look at the world of art crime. For the most part, it leaves the reader with a warm, fuzzy feeling, as Wittman succeeds again and again at recovering stolen artwork. I highly recommend this book if you’re interested in the subject, even if you’re not a fan of non-fiction – the chapters are short enough such that it will keep your interest, and the book as a whole is a wonderful read.