For some reason, art theft seems to be a fun thing to report on, so you’ll find no shortage of information poking around newspapers like The New York Times and The Guardian, but for the ultimate do-gooder’s take on art theft, start with Wittman’s book and his Web site, where you’ll find, admittedly, lots of information about Robert Wittman, but also a fairly comprehensive newsfeed regarding the latest thefts.

When you’re ready to get a little more scandalous, jump right into blogger Turbo Paul’s two sites, Art Hostage and Stolen Vermeer. Turbo Paul’s smug rhapsodizing on the Who, What, Where, When, How and Why of various art thefts makes him the Perez Hilton of the art theft world. “It’s a pretty entertaining site,” concedes Wittman. “I’ve never believed anything he said, but it was always entertaining.”

Wittman also suggests a visit to the Museum Security Network’s Web site, where you’ll find news and views regarding the theft and destruction of art as well as various other “cultural property.” There are also various links to help you dig deeper into more specialized sites on the subject. Because sooner or later, we all ask, “What’s Interpol doing about all this out-of-control art theft thing?”

To Script a Thief
Written by Denis Faye

Who doesn’t root for the big screen’s master thieves? How can you possibly resist the charms of Thomas Crown, John Robie, and Danny Ocean? They’re dashing, handsome and, hey, can you really blame a guy for attempting that last, big heist before walking away from crime forever?

If you’re Robert Wittman, you can. As the founder of the FBI’s Art Crime Team, he’s recovered over $225 millions in stolen art and artifacts. He’s rescued artwork by everyone from Rodin to Renior, Rembrandt to Rockwell. On the historical artifact front, he’s recovered everything from Geronimo’s headdress to an original copy of the Bill of Rights. And in all his undercover operations, he hasn’t once bumped into a Pierce Brosnan, Cary Grant, George Clooney – or even a Frank Sinatra (depending on which version of Ocean’s Eleven you follow).

“[Hollywood] tries to make them fun guys that the audience can identify with,” claims the art recovery expert. “They’re really good guys, but they’re doing bad things to get out. That’s just preposterous. I’ve never seen anyone doing that one, last job to get out.”

Wittman now runs his own international art security firm, Robert Wittman Inc, and his book, Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures, has just cracked The New York Times bestseller list. It’s also in the process of being optioned by Hollywood. Honestly, if you’re an action-adventure screenwriter who doesn’t want to take a crack at this guy’s story, you’re a little bit dead on the inside.

Wittman sat down with Technically Speaking to discuss how the art heist movie as we know it is largely a work of complete fantasy. That fancy security technology doesn’t exist, and the thieves do not have hearts of gold. Rather, they’re short-sighted fools who find themselves with millions of dollars worth of canvas and oil that no one in their right mind will buy given famous works of art tend to be highly recognizable. In other words, before you snatch and grab that 17th century Baroque number you’ve been eyeballing at the Getty lately, think it over a little.

What does Hollywood get right about art heists?

Sometimes they get right the value of the artwork – and the importance of it. That’s about it.

What do they get wrong?

Generally speaking, the security systems that Hollywood says are in place are totally bogus. If you look at some of the different movies that are out there – The Thomas Crown Affair [Screenplay by Leslie Dixon & Kurt Wimmer] comes to mind – those security systems, they just don’t exist. It doesn’t happen. There’s no taking a painting off a wall and the bars coming down like the Temple of Doom or something.

How about the thing where they cut the painting out of the frame with a box cutter?

That’s a horrendous thing to do to a painting! And when we actually see it used, they’ve learned it from Hollywood movies! It’s kind of irritating when we see that happen. Sometimes thieves emulate the movies.

So cutting it up like that really devalues it?

Yes, and once they slash it up, what do they do with it? In Hollywood, they roll it up. If you do that to a 13th century piece by Rembrandt, you’ve basically destroyed it.

How about the group of expert thieves, each with his or her own specialty?

The only thing I ever see are guys who are good drivers, guys who drive the getaway cars.

But I guess it could happen. There are guys who do different things in different robberies. I remember gangs I was investigating doing smash and grab jewelry heists. They had six guys. One guy was the car guy; he would go steal a car to use as a switch van. He would be the guy out in the car waiting. Then you’d have two guys going on surveillance as lookout. And then you’d have three guys actually go in – usually they’re really big guys – they’d go in and smash all the counters and steal the jewelry, so I guess you do have certain specialties, but you don’t have a safecracker and a guy who knows how to repel and things like that.

What’s a switch van?

They’d make their getaway in a switch van, so that witnesses would say they got away in a 1992 Plymouth Voyager, and the truth was, they’d drive it six blocks, dump it and get into their own cars.

What are some of your favorite art heist shows and movies?

I like Thomas Crown. I thought it was a fun movie. I liked Entrapment [Screenplay by Ron Bass and William Broyles], the way Catherine Zeta-Jones danced around the laser beams. But, by the way, they don’t have laser beams like that.

What about where they drop out of the duct to grab the jewel below?

Well, you’d have to be pretty small to begin with.

Not in museum heists, but in jewelry heists, I’ve seen them cut holes in the roof and drop down. They’ll wait for a weekend, rent the townhouse next to the jewelry store and go through the wall, or over the top of the building and through the ceiling.

They did something like that in The Bank Job [Written by Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais].

Yeah, that actually happened.

When you watch these heists play out in reality, are they as twisty-turny and exciting as they are in the movies?

They could be. Back in 2000, there was a group that robbed the National Museum in Stockholm, Sweden. They had three guys go in with machine guns. They had two car bombs on the two roads that led to the museum that stopped traffic. They made everyone lie on the floor, and they took two Renoirs and a Rembrandt and they made their getaway in a speedboat in the harbor. That’s pretty exciting.

In heist movies, it’s assumed that they get away. You’re on the other end of that. You catch the guys. Do they ever get away clean?

No. One insurance company I work for, their motto is, “You can steal from us, but you can’t keep it.”

When it comes to art theft, many of them aren’t solved in the first year. It can take years to solve them. Like that theft in Sweden, they didn’t get them back until 2005. Five years, they held them, hidden in a closet. So they got away with it, but what did they get away with? Nothing.

It doesn’t make sense to steal that kind of thing. It’s not like you can melt it down and resell it.

Exactly. Everybody knows it’s stolen and who’s going to pay a lot of money for it? What are you going to do with it?

So why do people steal art?

Because the criminals who actually do it to begin with, they’re excellent thieves, but terrible businessmen. They haven’t thought beyond the heist. They read the papers, they see where a Picasso sold for $104 million, and they think, “Oh, if I go out and steal a Picasso, I can get $104 million.” It just doesn’t work that way.

What they’ll get if they steal a Picasso is seven-to-20 in prison.

They go through all that trouble, and it doesn’t occur to them to make sure they have a buyer?

No. That’s the experience I’ve had. And in the end, we always get the paintings back when they come to market. For years people hold them because they can’t get rid of them, but then they die, and the paintings come up for auction, but they can’t sell them because they’re stolen. That’s where law enforcement often finds them. I talk about sting operations like that in the book.

Why do you even need to do a sting? Why can’t you just knock on the door and say, “Excuse me, that’s ours. Give it back”?

Well, in the case where we recovered the Bill of Rights, A couple of dealers tried to sell it to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia for $4 million. The thing was worth $30 million if it would sell, which it can’t.

So we did a sting operation because they had made some threats that if anyone found out they were trying to sell it, something would happen to the document, maybe they’d sell it overseas or they’d disappear. That’s the problem. It’s a very delicate negotiation. That’s why it’s an undercover operation. If a guy’s selling a kilo of coke, and he wants to swallow it, that’s up to him, but if it’s a Rembrandt or a Bill of Rights, you don’t want him burning it.

In all your years doing this, have you ever come across that thief who wants to call it a day after doing that one, last, big heist?

Well, a lot of these guys who do these heists steal the paintings, and then they don’t want to steal anymore because they can’t sell the ones that they’ve got, if that’s what you mean.

And the guys who steal jewelry, like Rolexes, they can sell those in a heartbeat. They move for 50 percent off the list price, so they never stop until they’re caught.

What about the theory that stealing art is a victimless crime because the insurance company is just going to pay for it anyway?

That’s wrong, because it’s still a piece of art. You steal a Rembrandt or a Monet or a Manet and you’ve stolen that from the whole world. We’re all victims then. It’s our culture. It’s our history.

But even if you steal money from a bank, it’s not a victimless crime. What you’re doing is costing us all money. And if you steal jewelry covered by insurance, what’s going to happen is everybody’s insurance is going to go up. They don’t pay it, ya know. They pass it along to us.