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on June 4, 2010
Very much a page-turner. Wittman's got a lot of great stories to tell about why we should appreciate art, how some government agencies have a warped sense of priorities and of course the fascinating ways in which some of the most infamous property crimes in history have played out and his role in them.

There are suave characters, misfit gangsters and plot twists that can make you laugh or cry (depending on how much of an appreciation of art you may have - and if you don't have much of one, you will by the time you finish this book). Some of the "gangster talk" is right out of Hollywood; you wouldn't believe it if dialogue wasn't culled from bugged meet-ups and hidden video. But it's all real! And its told in a style that at times borders on gumshoe noir, which keeps the action lively.

Highly recommended for a fun summer read; I think anyone would enjoy this international thriller and might even learn something along the way.
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VINE VOICEon July 30, 2010
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I love art history, and I love true crime stories, so I was really surprised that I didn't love PRICELESS. There were some interesting bits here and there, but I had to force myself to finish the book.

First of all, PRICELESS is very much a memoir - it's the story of the author's life, not the story of art crime. I was hoping for the story of art crime - not just Bob Wittman's personal experience with it. I didn't really want to learn all about Bob Wittman's life, but I did. He tells us what his dad did for a living, how he got into the FBI, the time he was charged with drunk driving, what he was doing on 9/11, things that are memorable to him but didn't really catch my interest.

Each chapter focuses on a particular sting that Wittman made. But...apparently undercover work isn't that exciting. Now, I can appreciate that the reality is probably a lot different than the movies, and it's interesting to get a glimpse of the unvarnished truth. But the truth is mighty dull. A lot of these undercover operations boil down to, "This guy was selling some stolen art, so I pretended like I was a broker who wanted to sell it on the black market, and once we were sure the art was authentic we arrested him." Sure, maybe Wittman's heart was pounding at the time, and yeah, it would be kind of crazy to have a fake identity and "befriend and betray" a bunch of criminals. But it's not a page-turner.

I thought Wittman's discussion of art history was really shallow. He got his entire art education by taking a course at an eccentric museum in Philadelphia. It did him a lot of good - but it didn't make him an expert. More like an amateur who doesn't realize that he's got a lot left to learn. So whenever he stops to talk about art, the passages read like an encyclopedia - Rembrandt was born here, he moved there, he got married at such and such an age. There's no analysis but also not a lot of emotion. And he only seems to research the information directly relevant to the stolen work of art; so, for example, he discusses Rembrandt almost entirely in terms of self-portraits, because that's what he recovered. A lot of the stolen art that Wittman tracked down was decorative, or some kind of historical artifact - swords used during the Civil War for example. He describes each stolen treasure in detail, so there's a grab bag element to the subject matter; maybe you'll find it interesting, maybe you won't.

And then he ends the book by describing his involvement in FBI attempts to solve the Gardner art heist. The way he tells it, FBI infighting screwed up a really good opportunity to retrieve the paintings. So we end the book on a bitter note, faced with a massive failure and a cast of selfish bureaucrats who can't see the forest for the trees. The political infighting is the most intricate thing that happens in the whole book, and somewhat more exciting than another round of, "So I told him I wanted to buy the piece and took him to my hotel room..." - but it's also depressing.

I guess, on the whole, I'd rather have read a different, better book about art crime. But PRICELESS was ok, and there were some interesting bits.
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VINE VOICEon July 11, 2010
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
The most interesting elements of "Priceless" were the facts regarding art and art theft and the awe and respect with which the author describes the pieces he views and recovers.

"Americans, in particular, are said to be uncultured when it comes to high art, more likely to go to a ballpark than a museum. But as I tell my foreign colleagues, the statistics belie that stereotype. Americans visit museums on a scale eclipsing sports. In 2007, more people visited the Smithsonian Institution museums in Washington (24.2 million) than attended a game played by the Nations Basketball Association (21.8 million), the National Hockey League (21.2 million), or the National Football League (17 million)."

I was shocked by that fact. I was also surprised by the different priority level that the US places on art theft, compared to other countries. Despite the record prices being paid for historical and artistic pieces now, the penalties for their theft weren't comparable. The trails that Wittman goes through trying to deal with and change the investigation procedures in these cases was very interesting.

But the points at which I was most interested in this story, in the memoirs of this FBI agent were when he described his reactions to the stolen treasures he tried to restore to their place in the world.

"This was my first antiquity case, but as I would learn, looters are especially insidious art thieves. They not only invade the sanctuaries of our ancestors, plundering burial grounds and lost cities in a reckless dash for buried treasure, they also destroy our ability to learn about our past in ways other art thieves do not. When a painting is stolen from a museum, we usually know its provenance. We know where it came from, who painted it, when and perhaps even why. But once an antiquity is looted, the archaeologist loses the chance to study a piece in context, the chance to document history."

The order to the cases seemed a bit disjointed to was hard to follow or remember where in Wittman's career we were and if major events or cases had come before or after the case he is describing.

And the description of the events did seem a bit removed from Wittman's emotions...except for a very personal event that happens near the beginning of the story.

In general, though, this book about his undercover life inside a world I know little about proved interesting and a change from most of the memoirs I've read.
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on June 2, 2010
Priceless has just about everything you'd want in a book, with appeal to all sorts of readers. In light of the recent art heist in Paris, this is timely and fascinating. Wittman's exploits do indeed read like a crime thriller, keeping the pages turning in a breathless fashion. I'll definitely buy more copies as gifts!
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on June 19, 2010
If you are a connoisseur of crime books that range from criminal psychology to the Mafia to serial killers and beyond... and the thought of reading a book that revolves around some of the world's great works of art... including Matisse... Monet... Rembrandt... Picasso... et al... turns you off... or just plain scares you... hold on a minute! I have a large library of the aforementioned category of crime books and I was extremely apprehensive about buying this book for those very same "artsy" aversions. In retrospect... I'm thrilled that I took the chance and bought this book anyway. What the author, Robert Wittman, a former FBI special agent does so magnificently is he draws the reader in with the usual promise of FBI crime titillation... then educates the reader so gently and rhythmically it becomes an almost subliminal indoctrination into what I had previously viewed as a "hoity-toity" upper-crust world that was not meant for me.

Wittman starts you off with names that any layman would be familiar with such as Rembrandt and Picasso... and then takes you on the same educational journey he himself traveled... such as getting educated in a course at an art gallery that simply takes you aback when you're told: "ON THE WALL IN FRONT OF ME, SURROUNDING A THIRTY-FOOT WINDOW HUNG THREE WORKS WITH A COMBINED WORTH OF HALF A BILLION DOLLARS." (Picasso's "THE PEASANTS"... Matisse's "SEATED RIFFIAN"... and Matisse's "THE DANCE".) What the author does from there on out is not only illuminate the world of art... but he shares such a strong empathy for the people whose works of art have been stolen. At times the victims are individuals... at times the victims are galleries... at times the victims are cities and states... and at times the victims are entire countries. As the flow of the story engulfs you... you... like the author begin to realize that it's actually humanity as a whole that is victimized by these thefts. Being that I consider myself an "average-Joe", I never thought I would feel this way towards these magnificent works of art. That is the gift of this book. Additionally... potential readers will be surprised that valuable artifacts from the civil war that have so much emotional familial value have been stolen and in many cases passed hands by cold-hearted swindles. The author and FBI have gone to great lengths in reacquiring these priceless antiquities and it is all detailed in this wonderfully touching story. I would have never volunteered to sit through a class that claimed to teach the things that I learned in this book... and I would have been far poorer if I had not read this book. Who knew that there were *FOURTEEN ORIGINAL COPIES OF THE BILL OF RIGHTS*... and one was missing for decades? The author shines a light on the fact that most "ART AND ANTIQUITIES THIEVES DON'T LOOK MUCH LIKE PIERCE BROSNAN OR SEAN CONNERY. RATHER, THEY LOOK LIKE GEORGE CSIZMAZIA AND ERNIE MEDFORD, THE ELECTRICIAN AND CUSTODIAN WHO SYSTEMATICALLY STOLE MORE THAN $2 MILLION WORTH OF REVOLUTIONARY WAR AND CIVIL WAR RELICS FROM A PHILADELPHIA MUSEUM." (Note the color pictures the author includes in the book verify that in spades!)

When you finish this first rate crime story you will find that you will be quite knowledgeable in the art field without having made much of an extended effort. It's kind of like walking in a warm summer tropical rainstorm... it was so enjoyable you don't even realize you got wet.
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on April 21, 2016
This story details a few highlights from the perspective of an FBI agent as he learns the art trade then goes about cleverly setting up underground sting operations to recover world renown art masterpieces from art thieves and mobsters.
Very unique book due to the international nature and personal insights of a brace and cunning FBI art specialist
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on August 11, 2013
This is in general a well-written book, that is as far as I can ascertain, true. It is from a retired FBI agent, their only art specialist (when he retired). Art crime is different than almost any other crime. It's only comparison is kidnapping. The aim in both is the recovery of the art (person) first, with prosecution a secondary consideration.

The FBI does not spend a lot of time or resources on art crime - people are not hurt (generally) in the commission of the crime, it generally takes a lot of time to solve the cases, and it is not glamorous, until the recovery is made. So, for the past 20-40 years (time is one of the reasons I only gave it a 4 instead of a 5 rating, as the passing of time is rather nebulous in this book) the FBI has only had one art crime specialist in the country.

One of the main themes to come out of this book is that there needs to be reorganization of the FBI for a handful of situations. In the FBI, the SAIC (Special Agent In Charge) of an area is in charge of EVERYTHING that happens in his area. In most cases, this is great. But when an FBI office has to call in or deal with one of their specialists like art theft specialist Bob Whitman, he then works for that SAIC, not his home one. And that often causes problems. One of the largest art cases went unsolved largely because the SAIC of one office insisted he know more about how to solve the case than the art crime specialist who had spent 15 years on the case, getting to know every little nuance of the crooks and art crime world. In other words, hundreds of millions of one-of-a-kind art is not available for anyone to see because of the inflated ego of the SAIC. And keep in mind that sometimes art thieves have destroyed pieces so their is little or no evidence against them if they are caught. Keep in mind that Rembrandt and DaVinci are retired and not doing much painting anymore, so originals are hard to replace.

All-in-all, a good book that move along at a nice pace. I would give it 4.5 stars if I could.
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on April 8, 2014
I heard this guy interviewed on NPR and immediately got the book. The heists and investigations he recounts are riveting; many are familiar from news stories. I was astonished at the pathetic security implemented at major galleries around the world. In many cases the thefts were childishly easy, including one escape on a bicycle

His writing stye is very solidly in the "There-I-was up to my neck...." mould, which gets pretty tedious. One chapter begins with " I reflected on all I had a accomplished in my long career......." so he's not short on ego. He could have benefited from a ghost writer but its still a great read.
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on September 13, 2013
Former FBI agent Robert Wittman calls on his professional experience, his personal passions, and his unique cultural upbringing to bring to the reader a well crafted account about how a one time salesman joined the FBI in his 30's to becomes the godfather of the FBI Art Team.

Every chapter or so tells of a different case he worked, combining the case itself with his own personal history, in order to bring the reader a very personal, although not overly sentimental, account of the crimes he solved and how he solved them.

The nice part is that Wittman is honest, to the point, and not afraid to show his own flaws. In other words, he doesn't write himself as a hero worthy of adoration. Instead, he describes his own perspectives, successes, and failures in a way so humble that the reader can't help but identify with him.

It is well written. It is easy to read. It is a great story of one man set against the backdrop of cultural history. A fantastic book.
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on May 31, 2011
If you are a fan of art and art museums, you are probably aware of some of the high profile art thefts that have been covered by the newspapers at the time and then never mentioned again. Aren't you curious about if and how they were solved, who worked on the cases, and whether the pieces were returned intact? Many of those questions are answered in this fascinating, factual account of one man's career with the FBI chasing down the thieves that got away.

He arrested my attention from the first chapter and I was forced to keep reading to satisfy my curiosity. I loved his description of the training that helped him become expert in the field and it made me want to take some time off for some classes myself.

Even if you don't know much about art, you will enjoy the clever traps the writer lays for these hapless criminals and cheer when they fall in head first.

A fun read.
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