DOYLESTOWN, PA.- One night in May, five paintings were stolen from the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville in Paris . What were the thief, or thieves, thinking when they walked off with a Picasso, a Matisse, a Braque, a Modigliani and a Leger? Did they plan to sell these paintings, whose heist was widely reported, or did they hope to place them on the mantel and gaze lovingly?
Edvard Munchs The Scream has been stolen, and recovered, twice, and in 2005 three more of his paintings were taken from the Munch Museum in Oslo , Norway . Artwork by Caravaggio, Dali, Monet, Degas, Cezanne, Van Gogh have all been subjects of theft at major, well-guarded museums.
According to the FBIs Art Theft Program website, losses from this looming criminal enterprise can run as high as $6 billion annually. And one major art heist from 1990 has yet to be solved: Thieves disguised as police officers handcuffed security guards and stole $500 million worth of art, including a Vermeer, a Rembrandt, a Degas and a Manet, from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston .
Robert K. Wittman has traveled the world, investigating and solving art and antiques crime. Author of The New York Times bestseller Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the Worlds Stolen Treasures, Mr. Wittman will be featured during an Illustrated Lecture at the James A. Michener Art Museum September 19, 3 to 5 pm.
The son of antiques dealers, Mr. Wittman grew up learning the business of art and dreamed of working as an FBI agent. His first two cases were at the Rodin Museum and at the Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology in Philadelphia . After he successfully solved both cases, he was sent to the Barnes Foundation to learn art history. He spent 20 years as a special agent and recovered more than $225 million worth of art. Among the treasures he helped return are one of the 13 original Bill of Rights and paintings by Rembrandt, Pissarro, Rembrandt and Goya.
The rising value of the art market has given a boost to art theft, says Mr. Wittman. And with artwork priced at $30 million and up, art theft is becoming increasingly violent. Often, art theft is an inside job.
I think for the wide majority of cases the motive is financial gain, says Mr. Wittman. In a smaller number of cases the motive is a love of the objects, by experts in a specific discipline who think they have more of a right to the objects because of their love and expertise. They just cant keep their hands off. The third much rarer motive is to make a political statement against an institution or artist.
Priceless is a memoir of the high-stakes operations Mr. Wittman planned and pulled off. Books will be available for purchase and signing in the Museum Shop. A wine and cheese reception with the author will follow the lecture. Tickets cost $20 members/$25 non-members, and includes museum admission.