The founder of the FBI’s Art Crime Team explained how he recovered more than $300 million worth of stolen art and cultural property to 800 Houstonians Thursday at the UH Cullen Performance Hall.
The event, which was co-sponsored by the UH Law Center, was focused on Robert K. Wittman’s career tracking down art thieves and promoting his New York Times best-selling book “Priceless.”
“Art generates $200 billion a year in the world-wide market and $80 billion in the US,” Wittman said.
“Our wine industry here generates $50 billion and all US pro sports combined only generate $24 billion.”
With the numbers backing him up, Wittman’s idea to start the FBI’s rapid deployment Art Crime Team took off.
His 20-year career with the FBI led him to recover stolen cultural property, including one of the original 14 copies of the Bill of Rights, which was stolen by a Union soldier in 1865 and is valued at $30 million.
“When a document like that is stolen, it has no value because it’s a theft from cultural history. For the first time five African American color bearers were able to fight for their freedom and were killed carrying that flag,” Wittman said.
“No price tag would give its true worth in the context of our culture, it’s priceless and that’s why I titled my book ‘Priceless.’”
Wittman worked undercover while chasing the world’s most profiting criminals.
“The best disguise is to be yourself and not try to be an actor. Another important key is to keep eyes to a minimum,” Wittman said. “When undercover, you only get one shot.”
Another investigative highlight in Wittman’s career was the recovery of Native American Apache medicine man Geronimo’s eagle feather war bonnet, which is valued at $1.2 million.