Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

by Michael J. O’Malley III

Robert King “Bob” Wittman in no way resembles the highly romanticized portrayals of FBI agents made famous over the decades by movie studios and television series. He is not the heavy-hitting, gang-busting, chain-smoking G-man, replete with fedora rakishly angled atop his head. Instead, he embodies the old-school preppy style – looking as though he just walked off the pages of a Brooks Brothers catalog. Beneath his charm and grace is an individual of relentless – actually, passionate – resolve who keenly understands that a country’s heritage is deeply rooted in paintings, photographs, sculpture, documents, military accoutrements and antiques. Without such artifacts and objects, he believes, there is neither context nor content for entire civilizations.

 

Robert K. Wittman

Robert K. Wittman. Courtesy Robert K. Wittman / Photo by Chris Crisman

Wittman has gingerly navigated the harrowing twists and precarious turns of the international underworld, a dark and dangerous place inhabited by criminals, mobsters, drug lords, thugs, thieves of all kinds, greedy gallery owners, avaricious collectors and murderers. It’s a world dominated by crooks, culprits and convicts, many of whom are enabled by corrupt politicians and feckless government officials, as well as a lack of meaningful legislation. During his stellar career of 20 years with the FBI, during which he received many awards and honors, Wittman went deep underground to save some of the world’s greatest works of art, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and return them to their rightful owners. His clandestine meetings with both sophisticated and petty criminals took place in airport motels, yachts, a Rolls-Royce and a rest area along the New Jersey Turnpike. It was not easy work and it was rarely glamorous. He frequently feared for his life. In fact, few knew what Wittman looked like during his tenure with the FBI’s Philadelphia headquarters. He studiously avoided being photographed at press conferences during which FBI officials announced the recovery of important works of art.

Wittman was born in Tokyo in 1955, the second child of Yachiyo Akaishi and Robert A. Wittman, both now deceased, who met during the last months of the Korean War at the U.S.-occupied Tachikawa Airfield. The couple married in 1953 and four years later moved to Baltimore, where the senior Wittman became proprietor of Wittman’s Oriental Gallery, an antiques shop.

Bob Wittman is extraordinary. He is savvy yet sensitive. Despite his role in breaking some of the world’s most difficult – as well as bizarre – cases, he is a family man. He is not given to braggadocio. He is devoted to his wife Donna, sons Kevin and Jeffrey, and daughter Kristin. He describes himself as “mellow and optimistic.” Nevertheless, he is a superstar who routinely put his life on the line to repatriate national treasures. His career is the stuff of which movies are made.

In Pennsylvania alone, he solved cases involving thefts at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP), the Rodin Museum, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum), Pennsbury Manor and the National Civil War Museum.

The thefts of treasures from HSP in Philadelphia were methodical and under the proverbial radar. A trusted custodian employed by the historical society for 17 years, Earnest “Ernie” Medford, who had the freedom to come and go as he pleased, slipped pieces out of the building at the end of his shifts. A preliminary report by Kristen Froehlich, collections manager, noted a c.1780 Lancaster County long rifle and three swords presented to famous Union generals of the American Civil War couldn’t be found among the organization’s expansive collections of 500,000 books, 300,000 graphic works, 15 million manuscripts, and 12,000 objects. Most of the objects were secured in storage areas and hadn’t been touched for at least a generation. What Wittman discovered at the Philadelphia home of electrician George Csizmazia – to whom Medford sold the items, valued at $2 million to $3 million, for a pittance – was astounding. Over the course of eight years, Medford had stolen 200 objects, many of national historic significance, and sold them to Csizmazia for the paltry sum of $8,000.

Wittman, who retired from the FBI in 2008, is the highly acclaimed author, with John Shiffman, of Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures, released in 2010 by Crown Publishers. Critical commendation for the book was immediate, catapulting it on The New York Times Best Seller list. “Priceless . . . is priceless, a spellbinding narrative of an FBI agent’s journey into the crazy murk of what is perhaps the most fascinating criminal activity of all, high-stakes art theft into the millions upon the millions,” opined Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights. Wittman’s most recent book, The Devil’s Diary: Alfred Rosenberg and the Stolen Secrets of the Third Reich, coauthored with Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter David Kinney, was published in March 2016. It, too, has garnered rave reviews. The book offers a riveting chronicle of the recovery of a 500-page diary kept by Rosenberg, Nazi Germany’s architect of racism and oppression, and the rise of Adolf Hitler and the genesis of the Holocaust. Wittman’s decade-long hunt for the manifesto eventually yielded the handwritten tome and its sinister pronouncements.

Wittman has appeared on CNN, Today, Colbert Nation and the History Channel’s Save Our History, and his work has been covered by The New York Times, USA Weekend, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Wall Street Journal, Reader’s Digest and Philadelphia Magazine, among many others. Today he and his wife operate Robert Wittman Inc., an art recovery and security consulting firm in Chester Heights, Delaware County.

In this interview Bob Wittman reflects on the people, both good and bad, he encountered and the prizes he recovered while saving the world’s treasures.

In 1988 Wittman, right, at the age of 33, graduated from the FBI Academy and embarked on an exciting 20-year career.
Courtesy Robert K. Wittman

Before joining the FBI you were the successful publisher of four monthly agricultural publications, but you never did give up your dream of becoming an agent. Can you share with our readers why you had such a burning desire to join the FBI?

I was interested in the agency, even as a young child in the 1960s. I used to watch The F.B.I., a great television series starring Efrem Zimbalist Jr., who played the role of Inspector Lewis Erskine. I really admired the work the agency was doing, such as investigating public corruption and examining situations that triggered racism.

I also knew Walter Gordon, who lived across the street from my family in Baltimore. He was with the FBI, so naturally I admired him and what he did. I applied for the FBI at the age of 23, which was the earliest you were allowed to do so. I was told I needed more experience and to come back when I was older. Of course, I became busy and didn’t try again until I was 31. It was at that time I saw an advertisement in a Baltimore newspaper recruiting new FBI agents. I called the agency, had an interview, and took the examination; within six months I was at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, for 16 weeks of intensive training.

After working in the private sector did you find it difficult to work for the FBI, particularly with the layers of bureaucracy?

I began with the FBI in 1988. I had no idea about being in the art crime program or recovering that type of material. That was when a television series, Miami Vice, was immensely popular. I was thinking about working in Miami as a federal narcotics officer and speeding around Miami Harbor in a high-performance cigarette boat. As it turned out, I was sent to Philadelphia.

Just by happenstance, the two cases to which I was assigned on arriving in Philadelphia were the theft of the great French sculptor’s Mask of the Man with the Broken Nose from the Rodin Museum and the theft from the Penn Museum of a statue of the Egyptian god Osiris and a 50-pound 19th-century quartz crystal ball that is the main piece in the museum’s Asian Section. I received these cases basically because I was the new man on the squad, which was the property crime squad. I worked with a veteran agent and mentor [Robert R.] Bob Bazin and we solved both crimes.

After solving these cases the FBI sent me to the Barnes Foundation in Merion for a year of fine art education, and then I went to the Gemological Institute of America in Santa Monica for diamond training, and then to Dallas to study gemology and jewels at the Zales Corporation. As a result of all the training, I was kind of pigeon-holed in the high-value asset world of art.

What were the classes like at the Barnes Foundation?

They were absolutely great. Classes were held one day a week. Before this training, though, I was in the art world because my father owned Asian antiques stores in Baltimore, so I had experience in the business side of art collecting and the art market.

When we discuss a crime it’s not about the art history, it’s not about the stories of loves won and lost by artists, it’s not about their work – it’s more about the business side of it, which is a $200 billion industry. Knowing how to deal in the art world was really helpful to me when working undercover. You had to have some background. I was familiar with Asian objects but not with fine art. Going to the Barnes was really a wonderful experience, because there is nowhere else you can be that close to paintings and be able to recognize the styles, genres and palettes of artists. After attending the classes, I could tell the difference between a Renoir and a Monet and a Monet and a Manet.

When we established the FBI’s Art Crime Team, I took new agents to the Barnes Foundation, and by the time we finished in one day, I think they could tell the difference between a Renoir and a Picasso, which to art aficionados, of course, is easy, but to FBI agents is a big deal. It was amazing to be surrounded by such important works of art and absorb what they looked like, so that I and fellow agents could identify them.

Now, can I tell a good fake from an original? No, I can’t, but I can walk you through a case, look closely at a painting, and say that it looks like a Renoir and it demands more investigation.

When was the Art Crime Team established?

By 2004 I had worked in a number of different countries – about 17 – recovering artworks, and after one of the cases I came back to the United States and realized the FBI did not have a dedicated art crime team. We didn’t have agents trained in these types of investigations, whereas Spain had two full squads in Madrid, Italy counted 300 art and antique squads, and England had its famous Scotland Yard. I went to FBI headquarters in 2004 and requested that we start our crime team, and by early the following year we were up and running. The initial training was conducted in early winter 2005 in Philadelphia, where we took eight agents assigned to the Art Crime Team to the Penn Museum to learn about archeological artifacts, to the Philadelphia Museum of Art where they were given a class in conservation and identification techniques, and to the Barnes Foundation to learn about fine art. I was the founder and the first senior investigator. I led the team until I retired in 2008.

 

During an undercover sting at a hotel near the Philadelphia International Airport, Wittman recovered a frail battle flag of the 12th Regiment Infantry, Corps D’Afrique, one of the first units of black soldiers to fight for the Union during the American Civil War. The flag was presented to the U.S. Army’s chief of military history during a ceremony at FBI headquarters attended by FBI director Louis J. Freeh, reenactors and Wittman, second from right. Courtesy Robert K. Wittman

During an undercover sting at a hotel near the Philadelphia International Airport, Wittman recovered a frail battle flag of the 12th Regiment Infantry, Corps D’Afrique, one of the first units of black soldiers to fight for the Union during the American Civil War. The flag was presented to the U.S. Army’s chief of military history during a ceremony at FBI headquarters attended by FBI director Louis J. Freeh, reenactors and Wittman, second from right. Courtesy Robert K. Wittman

Did you ever become angry with criminals for taking national or international treasures? 

When working on investigations as an FBI agent, your job is to gather evidence and present it in an intelligent manner. Usually you try to keep your emotions out of it. Anger, dislike, mistrust – all those things are negative. I try not to be angry with anybody. I try to keep professional in my investigation to uncover facts. Many, many times I did investigations where I cleared people – I cleared as many people as we convicted. I had more than 200 convictions in my career. An agent must always keep an open mind when doing an investigation. We are not there to convict people; we are there to investigate allegations and determine the facts.

I talk about laws pertaining to cultural properties, collections such as Native American artifacts, pre-Columbian antiquities and Asian art. Some collectors believe those items are fair game, but the federal government says not so. What we are looking at is to see if the elements of the crime have been met. If a person knew an article was considered protected and if law enforcement can prove that then, yes, they’ve broken the law.

Do you think many collectors know they purchased stolen goods?

No, 90 percent of the people who are in possession of stolen property don’t know it’s stolen. Material goes through so many hands. I relate it to that old children’s game, musical chairs, where they play the music and whoever is standing at the end with the artwork in hand is the one who is out. Only 5 to 10 percent of stolen property is recovered.

Are museum professionals up to date on security?

They are very much more so now than they were 20, 25 years ago. It’s become a hot issue and I can speak to it because I was the vice chairman of the American Alliance of Museums’ security committee, and I’ve written extensively about it for AAM’s Museum magazine. Security has become a professional position within most museums. Directors understand that at some point there could be a problem by not exercising due diligence to put in a good security program.

You contend that 80 to 90 percent of cultural thefts are committed by insiders.

Sadly, that’s true. We looked at museum security in the United States and discovered that 89 percent of museum thefts that were solved are committed by someone who had access to the collection. That doesn’t mean only employees – it also means anyone who had access to the collection, whether it’s a trustee, a visiting writer, scholar, educator or a contractor.

Some experts mistakenly believe they possess more knowledge about objects and think they have a right to have it. One thief stole netsuke – small and valuable antique carved Japanese ivories – from an institution in New Jersey. One man was stealing very valuable maps from rare book rooms throughout the world. It’s not highly unusual.

Is the lack of security because of lack of money? 

Individuals working in the museum community have a huge task because record-keeping often goes back to museums that might be a hundred years old or more, and record-keeping 80 years ago was totally different from today. The old records are 3-by-5 cards that don’t contain a whole lot of information on objects.

What about Stephen W. Shih, who stole Rodin’s Mask of the Man with the Broken Nose?

It was the first and the last time in the United States that a gun was fired during a commission of a cultural property theft. Stephen at one point took a gun out to convince the guards it was real. He shot a round in the wall to prove he was serious. It was really helpful he did that because we were able to recover a slug, and as a result, when we captured him, he had the same gun on him. We could show that bullet came from the gun. It was good ballistics evidence.

On his first international undercover case in 2001, Wittman traveled to Madrid to solve Spain’s greatest art crime — the theft of 18 paintings worth more than $50 million. Francisco Goya’s 1779 painting The Swing was stolen from the home of the country’s wealthiest woman, Esther Koplowitz, and was recovered by Wittman the following year.

On his first international undercover case in 2001, Wittman traveled to Madrid to solve Spain’s greatest art crime — the theft of 18 paintings worth more than $50 million. Francisco Goya’s 1779 painting The Swing was stolen from the home of the country’s wealthiest woman, Esther Koplowitz, and was recovered by Wittman the following year.
Courtesy Robert K. Wittman

Let’s talk about some of your very large international cases. What stands out in your mind as one of the more bizarre cases on which you worked?

One of the best planned robberies involved the heist of a Rembrandt self-portrait from the Swedish National Museum in Stockholm. Three men armed with machine guns walked into the museum on December 23, 2000. The time was approximately 5 o’clock, which was nearly closing time. It was dark, it was cold, and they ordered everyone to lie on the floor while one of the three stood guard. The other two went through the museum and stole three paintings: two by Renoir and the Rembrandt. The value of the paintings totaled $42 million.

Since the museum is on a peninsula right by the water, they had set off two car bombs in the city to stop police and fire departments from responding. It took the police 40 minutes to drive from headquarters to the museum; it gave the thieves time to get away in a high-speed boat. We ultimately recovered the Rembrandt, worth $35 million itself, during an undercover operation in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The return of North Carolina’s copy of the Bill of Rights is fascinating.

Probably the most valuable single item I recovered was North Carolina’s copy of the Bill of Rights. It was one of the 14 original Bill of Rights that were sent out by George Washington to be ratified by the state in 1789, and this one was stolen by a Union soldier in 1865 as Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s troops marched back north from Atlanta and stopped in Raleigh, North Carolina, to take over the state capital. A soldier went into the state archives and stole the copy. He sold the document for $5 and it remained underground in the same family all the way up to 2003, when we were able to recover it in Philadelphia, as it was being offered to the National Constitution Center for $4 million. I posed as a philanthropist who was putting up the money for the center to acquire it. We seized it and returned it to the state of North Carolina. It shows that our documents are just as valuable and as important as artwork and artifacts.

What would you estimate is the value of the objects, artwork and artifacts that you recovered during your tenure with the FBI?

According to my records – and the records I had were unofficial documents – it was about $300 million worth of stolen art and cultural property we were able to recover during my career.

Before we finish, is there anything you would like our readers to know?

The protection of cultural property is extremely important. To many donors sometimes security is not sexy, but it is critical. You won’t find the names of contributors on security cameras. Generous patrons like to see their names attached to objects, libraries, auditoriums, lobbies and galleries. Nevertheless, we have an obligation to maintain our cultural collections and save them for our future generations. Our forebears saved them for us and it’s terrible when we lose something because we have let down future generations.

Michael J. O’Malley III was editor of Pennsylvania Heritage for 30 years, from 1984 to 2014.

 

 

Robert K. Wittman at Pennsbury Manor

by Douglas A. Miller

On Tuesday night, February 6, 1996, 30-year-old Charles Cline, 27-year-old David Dancheck and 28-year-old David Wisen, who all shared a small cottage in Croydon, Bucks County, crashed a vehicle through a gate protecting Pennsbury Manor, the 43-acre country estate of Pennsylvania founder William Penn (1644–1718) overlooking the Delaware River in Morrisville. They drove the dark lane to the recreated main house and then kicked open a rear door of the manor’s attached kitchen, giving them unfettered access to one of the region’s most significant collections of 17th-century furnishings and decorative arts. Once inside the stately residence, the men toppled objects and knocked over furniture during what police generally call a “smash and grab” burglary.

 

The Manor House and its attached kitchen and the Bake and Brew House at Pennsbury Manor. PHMC/Photo by David J. Healy

The Manor House and its attached kitchen and the Bake and Brew House at Pennsbury Manor. PHMC / Photo by David J. Healy

Of the nearly 50 objects and artifacts taken was a large pewter charger, or serving platter, bearing the initials of Penn and his first wife Gulielma Maria Springett Penn (1644–1694), treasured by both staff and visitors. Dating to about 1660, the charger was given to the couple in 1672 as a wedding gift. Penn and his second wife, Hannah Callowhill Penn (1671–1726), who were married in 1696, presented the charger to the manor’s trusted steward, John Sotcher, whom the founder called “Honest John,” upon his marriage to head housekeeper Mary Lofty in 1701. The charger remained in the Sotcher family for generations, until a descendant donated it to Pennsbury Manor in 1939.

Approximately two-thirds of the objects removed from the manor house were reproductions used for interpreting the historic site for visitors. At the time of the burglary, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported, Cline worked as a part-time helper for the R&R Auction House in nearby Bristol, where the band of burglars intended to consign their ill-gotten goods.

Alice Hemenway, director of Pennsbury Manor at the time of the theft, returns the large pewter charger to the historic site after divers recovered it from the Delaware River.

Alice Hemenway, director of Pennsbury Manor at the time of the theft, returns the large pewter charger to the historic site after divers recovered it from the Delaware River.
Pennsbury Manor

The late Alice Hemenway, director of the historic site at the time, immediately alerted authorities the following day, and it was not long before FBI Special Agent Robert K. Wittman arrived at the crime scene. Knowing that 80 to 90 percent of thefts committed at cultural institutions and historical organizations are inside jobs, Wittman first conducted extensive (and, for the staff, emotionally exhausting) interviews, from which he determined the break-in had nothing to do with curators, historians, guides, groundskeepers and volunteers.

Relying on expansive documentation, detailed descriptions and record photographs, Pennsbury staff members began distributing information to southeastern Pennsylvania’s antiques dealers, auction houses, well-known collectors, newspapers, and television and radio stations. News of the theft spread rapidly, making the objects too hot to handle, and the fearful perpetrators tossed their loot into the Delaware River in two locations. Of the objects stolen and submerged, divers recovered 38 items, including the charger. Among the treasures lost to the river was a rare 1650 silk needlework casket.

Working with Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Anthony W. Rhodunda, Wittman broke the case. His partner in the prosecution was former Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert E. Goldman. The trial remains landmark because it was the first case to test a new, never-before-deployed federal law concerning the theft of art. Passed by Congress only two years earlier in September 1994, the Theft of Major Artwork statute established that crimes impacting cultural institutions and historical organizations are heinous and the convicted will receive harsh sentences. Trading in stolen artwork is the third greatest generator of illegal revenue, behind drugs and arms, which makes it appealing to the unscrupulous. This billion-dollar black market industry robs both countries and citizens of their heritage and, one can handily argue, strips them of their identity.

Douglas A. Miller joined the PHMC staff in 1993 and has served as historic site administrator of Pennsbury Manor since 1996.

 

Institutions and organizations – including large and small museums, county and local historical societies, college and university galleries, libraries, archives and repositories of significant objects, artifacts, documents and rare photographic images – wishing to learn more about safeguarding their collections should contact Robert Wittman Inc., headquartered in Chester Heights, Delaware County. The firm offers proactive, professional advice for museum security, including site surveys and reviews; object inventories, condition reports and documentation; collection management services; and loan and traveling exhibition coordination, including storage, transportation, packaging and in-route security. Robert K. Wittman is also available to speak at special events. For information, visit the company’s website at robertwittmaninc.com.