Priceless, by Robert K. Wittman (Hardcover, 2010)|
(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)
Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.
Maybe they aren't the Federal Bureau of Incompetence, after all. In this book, we find an example of an FBI employee who truly sought to solve crimes. And he actually did so, despite obstacles thrown up constantly by Bureau, uh, bureaucrats. Wittman spent two decades as an FBI Special Agent, during which time he worked on cases that resulted in the recovery of $225 million worth of cultural treasures.
Written in a compelling style, this book takes you on a ride through the undercover world of art theft recovery. For most of us readers, the book is educational as well as entertaining. The education part is subtle, fitting into the context of whatever caper Wittman was discussing.
Most of us aren't art historians and don't spend a lot of time in art museums. So the theft of art may seem like no big deal. Just some paintings. That isn't an accurate perception of reality. As Wittman explains in Chapter 2, it's a theft of history. Many of the items he recovered were not paintings.
For example, did you know there were 14 originals of the Bill of Rights? Not "copies," but 14 signed pennings of it. One went to each of the 13 states and one to the federal government. One of these was stolen during the War Between the States and not recovered for generations. Wittman was instrumental in recovering it and restoring it to its rightful owner, the State of North Carolina.
Other restored treasures include historic pistols, swords, uniforms, Native American bonnets, and battlefield flags. Think about the kinds of precious artifacts that inform us about our history, and you can see that paintings are just part of the long list of things that get heisted from museums.
Wittman informs us that, unlike what we see in movies such as National Treasure and The Thomas Crown Affair, the theft of these items isn't benign. Thieves sometimes damage or destroy these items. Sometimes, they stow them away out of sight from the public just to have a private collection they don't even understand. But usually, they sell them on the black market for a fraction of their actual worth (worth being what the lawful owner paid to acquire them).
Wittman and like-minded others in the FBI focused on recovering the stolen artifacts, rather than arresting the criminals. This doesn't mean they didn't get arrests. Just that the priority was on recovering. Wittman's explanation as to why this was important does, by itself, make this book a "must read" for those who don't know why.
From the way he gave these accounts, it's clear that he solved each case with the help of other law enforcement people (in the FBI and in the agencies of other nations). Wittman's Acknowledgments also makes this clear. So this isn't a book about how one guy did the right thing while his coworkers were idiots. Far from it.
In each case, a team made things happen and a team kept Wittman safe. However, it's also true that there was plenty of obstruction from turf-minded people who placed their own career climbing over the actual missions that justified their having a job in the first place. So I think this book is instructive to everyone in federal law enforcement, because they can see from it how a proper mindset gets things done while a turf-battle mindset actually defeats the reason for having law enforcement officers because it helps criminals.
At no point does Wittman engage in the currently common practice of betraying the trust of the reader. There's no political proselytizing, for example. And he just sounds authoritative the whole way through. It's truly a work of nonfiction, but it uses the writing techniques of the best fiction to provide a factual, yet engrossing, text.
The story takes up 25 chapters in 314 pages. The hardest part of reading this book was deciding when to stop turning those pages. It really was hard to put down.