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Book Review of: Priceless

How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures

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Review of Priceless, by Robert K. Wittman (Hardcover, 2010)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

Reviewer: 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.



About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or no substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably 20,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree and an MBA, among other "quant" degrees. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.

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