As many of you know, I am a sucker for heist and con artists stories. So I was drawn to Priceless because Robert K. Wittman offered a perspective I haven’t heard from—I’ve read a lot of stories from the points of view of the criminals, as well as from the marks. I was excited to hear from a retired law enforcement officer who specialized at going undercover. Wittman’s memoir is a treasure trove of insight into how art theft and the underground art market works, along with some interesting looks at how world events in the 1990s and 2000s shaped FBI enforcement and pursuit of things like art crime. As with many memoirs, one must swallow his stories with a grain of salt, sift through the small moments of self-aggrandizement. Yet Wittman largely won me over, and most importantly, I feel like I learned a lot.
The structure of this book is from a textbook in memoir writing: start with a dramatic incident at the height of Wittman’s career, then yank us back to the beginning of his life to tell us how he got involved in the FBI and art theft. This works pretty well. We learn about Wittman’s background (he is mixed race, his father a white American who served in the Korean War and married Wittman’s Japanese mother while on deployment), along with why he became interested in being an FBI agent. His entrance into the world of art crime was a little more accidental, though Wittman draws lines connecting his father’s interest in antiques and Wittman’s own penchant for sales—in the case of the latter, Wittman emphasizes the need for an undercover agent to sell oneself all the time: they buy you, your personality, not the facts of the cover story.
In this way, this book becomes about more than mere art theft. This is a window on the life of a certain type of FBI agent during the 1990s and 2000s. Wittman emphasizes the procedural demands of the job, along with his attitude towards them. He’s up front that one of the reasons he retired as soon as he was eligible for a full pension is that he thought, by 2008, that the FBI had “changed” and was “no longer the agency it once was.” Throughout his tellings, he definitely comes across as one of the smartest people in the room—that’s not to say he makes a Mary Sue out of himself, but there were a couple of points near the beginning of the book that I was tempted to put it down and walk away. I didn’t want to snark on this guy in a bad review. Nevertheless, I persevered, and eventually his tone and storytelling style grew on me. I believe Wittman is genuinely doing his best to be honest and straight with us, that he isn’t trying to make himself out to be some outsized hero.
So once you get past that, there’s a lot of interesting stuff in here. Wittman discusses why the FBI generally didn’t put a lot of resources behind art crime within the United States. He describes how 9/11 changed that (along with his own, very personal involvement on that day). I definitely got the impression that a lot of his experiences, the opportunities he had, the way things went down was a case of “the stars aligned” kind of juxtaposition of various events—something I feel is all too common in our lives and a good thing to keep in mind as we move through them. You never know how one world event or life event is going to alter the trajectory of what you are studying, working on, or engaged in.
Regarding the actual art crime angle, I built upon my existing knowledge. For example, I already knew that a lot of stolen art is difficult to fence because it is rare and recognizable. I knew that when it came to antiquities from nations in the global south, the market was driven by rich people from the West. I didn’t know much about the process that goes into investigating and taking down an art thief or dealer. Each chapter of Priceless focuses on a particular undercover case from Wittman’s career, and each reveals slightly different facets of the art crime industry. I really liked one in which, ironically, he couldn’t go undercover because it was too close to home—he arrested an Antiques Roadshow appraiser for defrauding people of the true value of their antiques! Wittman’s passion for getting justice and preserving the artistic and cultural heritage of various countries comes through loud and clear in these chapters. He laments law enforcement officers who focus solely on “getting their man” and putting people behind bars; for him, solving art crimes and retrieving stolen art was a public good.
So if you are looking for some good yarns, some “back in my day” adventures from a former undercover art crime investigator, Priceless has what you want. It has more serious moments, of course, such as when Wittman talks about the years-long struggle to clear his name of a drunk driving charge based on a hospital test mix-up. But this book is mostly what you would expect from the title and description, so as long as you go into it expecting that, you will be satisfied.