Break into your local 7-11 to steal a few twenties from the cash register and a carton of Marlboros and society is sure to turn its nose up at you. Break into the New York Met and steal a Monet, however, and society’s reaction will be mixed. Disgust likely registered at the public’s loss of such an invaluable piece of art, there will, however, be a certain sense of awe or mystique that is given to the thief. Outsmarting guards and alarms and getting away with millions of dollars in goods, Thomas Crown is as much a hero as anti-hero. Demystifying the awe, Robert Wittman’s Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures (2011) looks at the underworld of art theft and black market sales from an insider’s perspective.
Part memoir, part history, and part exposition on methodology, Priceless describes how Wittman joined the FBI, began investigating stolen art and artifacts, his ways of working, and the stories behind locating some of the world’s most famous stolen art and capturing the people who stole them. From recovering American civil war trophies in his early years to sniffing out the men behind the world’s biggest art theft (the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum robbery), Wittman provides a first-hand perspective to how certain pieces of art and cultural artifacts were returned to their rightful homes in public display cases.
If Priceless highlights anything in terms of methodology, it’s the value of empathy and understanding when looking to build relationships and trust. While Wittman used this tool to betray criminals, it’s quite clear that the bonds this forms with people who love art and are interested in preserving culture for the public sphere are stronger. Being able to see and experience pieces of history millennia old, being able to see the works of old masters preserved for centuries are the treasures of humanity that each and every person has the right to see for themselves, thus making the betrayal of people who would limit the public’s access to these items a fully justifiable step.
For readers looking for media like The Thomas Crown Affair or Ocean’s Eleven, Priceless delivers a dose of reality that is just as tense and if not more engaging for being real. When millions of dollars and various mafia are involved, the value of human life can take a backseat to greedier interests. While the primary focus is how Wittman was able to lure criminals, smugglers, and black market sellers into traps, he likewise provides appropriate contexts of how the objects or art came to be missing in the first place. Delivering on expectations, it all makes for the entertaining and informative reading that the book’s blurb hints at.