|By Eric C. Rodenberg
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — A well-orchestrated media blitz by the federal government to recover art stolen during the 23-year-old Isabella Stewart Gardner heist is a wise move, according to Robert K. Wittman, the founder and former leader of the FBI National Art Crime Team.
“It creates the buzz,” Wittman said. “It will turn the heat up.”
The FBI’s planned launch of a publicity campaign – using social media, a website and billboards – is patterned after the agency’s success in locating fugitive James “Whitey” Bulger.
“It would be great to get the party that got into the Gardner,” Wittman said, “but I don’t think that’s so important now. The important thing is getting the art back.”
While working art crime cases in Philadelphia between 1988 and 2008, digital technology was not at a point where a federal agency could get such information and images out quickly to the public, Wittman said.
“Ten years makes quite a difference,” Wittman said.
And time – particularly 23 years – can work against the chances of the intact survival of the art.
“When things go missing for that amount of time, usually it’s not going to weather well,” Wittman said. “It’s also been my experience when art is cut out of a frame it doesn’t hold up as well. When they’re cut out – as some of these were – they begin deteriorating. I don’t know whether that is the case here. I hope that’s not the situation, but it’s highly likely the works will need restoration.”
During Wittman’s storied career, nearly nine out of 10 art-theft investigations required an undercover operation, a skill Wittman perfected into science. During his 20-year tenure with the FBI, Wittman has been credited with playing a key role in the recovery of more than $225 million in art, antiques and antiquaries. He has worked undercover throughout the United States, Europe and South America.
He co-authored a New York Times’ bestseller Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures, an autobiography of his undercover exploits within the art world.
He now operates Robert Wittman Inc., a firm that offers recovery services, museum and private collection security, and due diligence and provenance reviews. Wittman still works with several investigative agencies.
Wittman does counter, however, FBI allegations that the Gardner art was transported through the Philadelphia area, where some of it was offered for sale.
“I was there, and I was working with organized crime units in the city when we were making attempts from 2006 to 2008 to recover the art,” he said. “I know it didn’t move through that city. That is information that supposedly they uncovered in 2010. It didn’t happen. I assure you it didn’t move through Philadelphia … it doesn’t make any sense.”
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