Sometimes professional curiosity places books on my to read list, and that’s certainly how Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures ended up there. While I don’t work in an art museum something that remains a point of interest for me from my days in grad school is the world of stolen and looted art and its recovery. Historical objects can fall into this category easily (and represent a good portion of the cases covered in Priceless) but art and antiquities are often the stars of the show and two of the major pillars in this world are the Art Loss Register and the FBI’s Art Crime Team and Art Theft Program.
Priceless is a memoir, specifically of Robert Wittman who was the founding member of the Art Crime Team. This is his story of his professional life, trailing his way through two decades worth of art crime cases. Wittman often worked undercover, usually unarmed, to catch art thieves, scammers, and black market traders who specialized in a wide variety of looted and stolen cultural patrimony. It is enjoyable to follow along as Wittman relates the stories behind his recoveries including a Rodin sculpture that inspired the Impressionist movement, a headdress Geronimo wore at his final public appearance, and the rare Civil War battle flag carried into battle by one of the nation’s first African-American regiments.
While the breadth and depth of the career Wittman crafted and relates is interesting all on its own, I found the structure of the book did it a bit of a disservice (apparently I’m just unhappy broadly with narrative non-fiction lately, I’m hoping my next one breaks the streak). The book opens and closes with Wittman’s attempts to recover some of the paintings stolen from the Isabella Gardner Museum in 1990. As none of those pieces have been recovered to date, it takes a bit of the tension out of the equation. It also dumps the reader into a case in progress without the knowledge to completely appreciate what is happening. Otherwise, this is a interesting book if you’re looking for some insight into how American law enforcement dramatically underserves these cases and what goes into solving them, and how often the return of the piece is the priority over an arrest. But I think this one’s just for someone with a pre-existing interest.