Author of the bestselling book Priceless and a creator of the FBI’s Art Crime Team.
A true living legend, Robert Wittman has traveled around the world, recovering more than $225 million worth of stolen art and antiquities in his 21-year career at the FBI, and was instrumental in the creation of the FBI Art Crime Team in 2005, which has recovered more than 850 artworks and antiquities since that time.
A graduate of Towson University, Wittman always knew that he wanted to join the FBI, believing it to be an honorable profession and a way to serve his country. In 1988 he became a Special Agent, assigned to the Philadelphia Field Division, where he partnered with FBI agent Bob Bazin (who first kindled Wittman’s love of investigating art crime) and pursued years of art education at the Barnes Foundation, guiding him down a path to becoming a true expert in many fields of fine and decorative art.
In 2001, Wittman joined forces with fellow Beacon Award recipient David Hall and traveled to Brazil to rescue five Norman Rockwell paintings. In a 2005 undercover operation carried out with ICE and law enforcement agencies in Sweden and Denmark, he rescued Rembrandt’s painting, “Self Portrait,” which had been stolen from the Swedish National Museum in 2001. Another highlight of his career—the recovery a Pre-Columbian masterpiece, the Lord of Sipan’s gold backflap, from the trunk of a car near the New Jersey Turnpike in 1997—occurred after Wittman promised the sellers a meeting with the mysterious buyer, “el Hombre de Oro,” codename for Assistant U.S. Prosecutor Robert Goldman, another of tonight’s Beacon Award winners.
In recognition of his many achievements, Robert Wittman has received the Peruvian Order of Merit for distinguished Service presented by the President of Peru in 2000, the Outstanding Contributions in Law Enforcement Award presented by Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2001, the White Cross of Law Enforcement Merit Medal presented by the Spanish National Police in 2003, and the Robert Burke Memorial Award for Excellence in Cultural Property Protection presented by the Smithsonian Institution in 2004.
In 2010, Wittman chronicled his adventures, with co-author John Shiffman, in the New York Times’ bestselling book Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures, which is being adapted into a feature film. He now operates his own art security, protection, and recovery firm, Robert Wittman Inc.
SAFE is pleased to honor Robert Wittman’s remarkable service and the foundations he helped to create at the FBI Art Crime Team to continue this valuable work.
AWARD CEREMONY AND RECEPTION
On Friday, October 29, 2010 over 120 people packed into John Jay College’s Gerald W. Lynch Theater in New York City for the sold-out, fourth-ever SAFE Beacon Awards.
On this evening, SAFE honored four exceptional law enforcement officials who have fought on the frontlines of the illicit antiquities trade: Senior Special Agent for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) James McAndrew, U.S. Attorney David Hall, former federal prosecutor and private practicing attorney Robert Goldman, and retired FBI Agent Robert Wittman.
SAFE’s founder Cindy Ho set the tone for the evening in her opening remarks, reiterating the organization’s mission to promote the stewardship of cultural objects which hold invaluable information about our shared history. She then introduced Dr. Richard Leventhal of the Penn Cultural Heritage Center, who co-sponsored the event. Dr. Leventhal turned his attention to the audience, emphasizing the importance of public awareness and echoing what David Hall would say later in the night: “Every sleuth has a tipster.”
Marion Forsyth Werkheiser of the newly formed Cultural Heritage Partners moderated the lively panel, “A Fight for the Future” which at times, felt more like a reunion than a lecture, as all four Beacon Award winners have worked together on various cases and training programs.
The awardees’ brief individual presentations gave way to a spirited discussion about some of the challenges they have faced in the field. The four winners touched on the unfortunate difficulty in finding archaeologists, conservators and other academics who are willing to use their expertise to identify illicit antiquities. They also recognized that there was no shortage of art crime cases in the U.S., but the self-motivated government agents and federal attorneys who pursue those investigations must do so alongside murder cases, drug busts, car thefts and other work.
“Objects that you recover are going to be here for future generations,” Goldman said, and similarly, David Hall recalled Hippocrates’ famous maxim: “Ars langa, vita brevis” (Art lasts, life is brief).Obstacles aside, the awardees beamed while talking about the immense satisfaction that goes along with recovering objects that are part of a larger historical puzzle. And though these officials have collectively rescued hundreds of millions of dollars worth of stolen art, they were emphatic that cultural artifacts are inherently priceless – the irresistible word of the night, as the award winners celebrated Wittman’s bestselling memoir of the same name, which he signed for audience members during the reception.
We would like to thank everyone who helped make October 29 an outstanding evening. SAFE again applauds Goldman, Hall, McAndrew, and Wittman for their exceptional work in the field and joins them in their hope that one day, their line work won’t be so exceptional.
We also wish to thank every one of the attendees who responded to our exit survey (an impressive 50%) and revealed that prior to the event, half of them were not familiar or only somewhat familiar with the issues. For this reason, this event’s outcome was especially rewarding given our mission to raise public awareness. We are grateful for the feedback we received, including the following:
- “I enjoyed the presentations. Very informative! Never studied on this topic. Tonight I have learned and it has become a great interest to me.”
- “I was not aware the scale and impact of looting. I am shocked!”
- “Great very informative and entertaining.”
- “The panelists were so compelling.”
- “The presentation and the information were great and useful for the future.”
- “Very interesting presentation. I’m more aware of the art business now.”
- “This event is significant and should be shared with the public!”
Also, special thanks to the following:
Elizabeth Gilgan, Deanna Baker, Megan Gannon, Marc Balcells, Ellen Belcher, Glenda Chao, Ana Escobedo, Luke Glover, Athena Hsieh, Damien Huffe, Laura Moore, Tracy Musacchio, Heather Otto, Margaret Rivera, Rebecca Rushfield, Brooke Todsen, Gabriele Ursitti, Adam Witham, Hyuna Yong
“Very informative! Never studied this topic. Tonight I have learned and it has become a great interest to me.”E.J., New York City
SPREAD THE WORD!
Friday October 29, 2010 Lecture: Gerald W. Lynch Theater, John Jay College of Criminal Justice 899 Tenth Ave, New York, New York
Download souvenir journal and “like” SAFE Beacon Awards on Facebook.
We thank the following organizations and individuals for their participation in the Souvenir Journal:
- The Archaeological Institute of America (AIA)
- The Art Loss Register
- Crozier Fine Arts
- Cultural Heritage and Preservation Studies (CHAPS)
- Cultural Heritage Partners, LLC
- DePaul University College of Law, Center for Art, Museum and Cultural Heritage Law
- Sharon Flescher, IFAR
- Global Heritage Fund
- Geophysical Survey Systems, Inc. (GSSI)
- Herrick, Feinstein LLP
- Judith Hoffman
- Hoffman Law Firm
- Cherkea Howery
- International Journal of Cultural Property
- The Artemis A. W. and Martha Sharp Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World
- Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation (LCCHP)
- Eric Powell
- Blythe Bowman Proulx
- Margaret Rivera
- Lucille Roussin
- Nerissa Russell
- Elizabeth Simpson
- Marina Papa-Sokal
- NYU, Yeronisos Island Excavations, Cyprus
- Penn Cultural Heritage Center
- Rago Arts and Auction Center
- Ricardo A. St. Hilaire, Attorney & Counselor at Law, PLLC
- Shred Services
- Sustainable Preservation Initiative
- Thomson Reuters
- Time Moving & Storage
- U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield
- Marni Blake Walter
- Webflow Solutions