Top critical review
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could be worse
on July 30, 2010
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.