Robert Wittman (@robertwittman) is the former senior investigator/creator of the FBI’s national art crime team and author of Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures.
What We Discuss with Robert Wittman:
- Why criminal and terrorist organizations find art less risky to smuggle than contraband like cash, drugs, or guns.
- The three things that make an art piece valuable: provenance, authenticity, and good title.
- Why the US has only relatively recently begun to take art crime seriously, whereas Italy’s art crime team has a freaking submarine!
- Simple but effective tactics for remaining undercover without arousing suspicion from the targets.
- Why losing his fear instinct was a clear signal for Robert to retire from undercover work for good.
- And much more…
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Art theft generates more than $6 billion a year for classless hooligans, organized criminal enterprises, and terrorists, but the United States hasn’t taken it seriously until relatively recently. Meanwhile, the rest of the world dedicates countless resources toward ensuring the return of stolen art and artifacts — and Italy’s art crime team even has access to a submarine! Why?
On this episode, we talk to Robert Wittman, the founder of the FBI’s art crime team and author of Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures. He’ll explain the legal challenges of recovering stolen art and prosecuting those who profit from it, why criminals and terrorists find art easier to smuggle than contraband like drugs or guns or big stacks of cash, what simple but effective tactics he used to infiltrate art thieving networks without blowing his own cover (and how he narrowly avoided raising suspicion when he slipped up), and when he knew it was time to retire from undercover work for good. Listen, learn, and enjoy!
Please Scroll Down for Featured Resources and Transcript!
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Miss the episode we did with legendary funnyman Howie Mandel? Catch up by listening to episode 210: Howie Mandel | A Conversation About Mental Health, Talent, and Perseverance here!
THANKS, ROBERT WITTMAN!
If you enjoyed this session with Robert Wittman, let him know by clicking on the link below and sending him a quick shout out at Twitter:
And if you want us to answer your questions on one of our upcoming weekly Feedback Friday episodes, drop us a line at email@example.com.
Resources from This Episode:
- Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures by Robert K. Wittman and John Shiffman
- The Devil’s Diary: Alfred Rosenberg and the Stolen Secrets of the Third Reich by Robert K. Wittman and David Kinney
- Robert K. Wittman | Website
- Robert Wittman | Twitter
- Art Crime Team | FBI
- Carabinieri Art Squad | Wikipedia
- Greece Could Use Brexit to Recover ′Stolen′ Parthenon Art | Deutsche Welle
- How French Art Police Are Hunting ISIS Antiquities Racket | Worldcrunch
- 75 People Arrested as Spain Cracks Down on Art Trafficking | Olive Press News Spain
- London Art and Antiques Unit | Illicit Cultural Property
- Amendment 638 | United States Sentencing Commission
- Geronimo’s War Bonnet | American Icons
- The Secrets of the World’s Greatest Art Thief | GQ
- Priceless Art Haul Destroyed by Thief’s Mother | The Guardian
- Bill of Rights: FBI Sting Operation Saved North Carolina Copy | Time
- The Purchase, Theft, and Recovery of the Crystal Ball | Penn Museum
- American Pickers | History
- It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia | Prime Video
- Hill Street Blues | Prime Video
- Miami Vice | Prime Video
- Guilty Plea in ’88 Theft Of a Rodin Sculpture | The New York Times
- Zimbabwe: How Stolen Artefacts Were Found | Association of Registrars and Collections Specialists
- Is Everything Sacred? | Legal Affairs
- Art Thieves Make Terrible Businessmen | Quartz
- Ken Perenyi | The Secret Life of an American Art Forger | TJHS 282
- Watch Picasso Make a Masterpiece | Royal Academy of Arts
- Salvador Dali & Surrealism | Jessye
- Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841 – 1919) | National Gallery, London
- Roger Atwood | Twitter
- The Deaths of 76 Branch Davidians in April 1993 Could Have Been Avoided – So Why Didn’t Anyone Care? | The Conversation
Transcript for Robert Wittman | The Undercover Hunt for Stolen Art (Episode 401)
Jordan Harbinger: [00:00:00] Coming up on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
Robert Wittman: [00:00:02] We walked in with the box and we had the — US attorney was there, you know, maybe the governor, the head of the FBI office, all these people standing around waiting to see this fantastic object, the Bill of Rights. So as we opened the box up, I knocked a little fake piece out on top and it fell on the floor and Jay, of course, whatever, to pick it up and he stepped on it and everybody went crazy. They thought we just dropped the Bill of Rights on the ground and stepped on it by mistake. It looked like a Three Stooges act.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:00:33] Welcome to the show. I'm Jordan Harbinger. On The Jordan Harbinger Show, we decode the stories, secrets, and skills of the world's most fascinating people. If you're new to the show, we have in-depth conversations with people at the top of their game, astronauts, entrepreneurs, spies, and psychologists, even the occasional FBI undercover — and that's what we've got here for you today. Each show turns our guests' wisdom into practical advice that you can use to build a deeper understanding of how the world works and become a better critical thinker.
[00:01:00] Now, today, art crime is a six-billion-dollar a year industry. Who knew art is used to financing terrorism, drug deals, money-laundering? Today's guest Bob Wittman. He trained the art crime team at the FBI. He basically founded it. He spent years going undercover as a shady art dealer who was used to multimillion-dollar deals. He's rescued art from all over the world. We're going to hear about a lot of what he's found today, tips and tricks of the undercover agents, how they develop rapport, stay secret, how they manage two lives at once. One is an FBI agent and the other as a criminal.
[00:01:33] If you're wondering how I managed to book all these great authors, thinkers, celebrities, undercovers every single week, it's because of my network. And I'm teaching you how to build your network for free over at jordanharbinger.com/course. And by the way, most of the guests on our show, they subscribe to the course. They help contribute to the course. So come join us, you'll be in smart company.
[00:01:53] Now, here's Bob Wittman.
[00:01:58] I was surprised actually to read that art crime is a six billion-dollar a year industry. Do you think it's more now since you've written the book or do you think it's gone down?
Robert Wittman: [00:02:06] Well, you know, Jordan, first of all, thanks for having me on your show. This is great.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:02:09] Oh yeah.
Robert Wittman: [00:02:10] I really appreciate — I love your show.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:02:11] Thank you.
Robert Wittman: [00:02:11] But just to let you know, it's interesting — back in 2000, we were contacted, we being the FBI by the New York Times. And we were asked the question, how big is our crime in the world? What is the number? We did a study. We talked to a Scotland Yard, the Metropolitan Police in London who had an Arts and Antiquities Squad. We contacted the Interpol. We spoke to a number of different other countries, and we came up with a figure of six billion dollars as an estimate of all art crime. And that encompasses not just theft, but it's also things like fraud, forgeries, fakes, all different types of crimes involving the art world. And that was the number back in 2000.
[00:02:50] Now, since then 20 years later, the art market has exploded financially. I mean, we have paintings today selling for $400 million. It's not uncommon for a hundred million dollars to pass hands. And any specific paintings, let's say, a Picasso or premiere or anything like that, we talk about hundreds of millions of dollars. So absolutely the loss has risen as a result of the rise in value.
[00:03:15] You know, it's a funny thing. Many, many years ago, there was a bank robber. And as he was being let out of the bank, after being captured, a reporter asked him, "Why do you rob banks?" And his response was, "Because that's where the money is." And that's why our crime has exploded in the past 20 years.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:03:30] Why art? Like art is probably easier to smuggle, but also harder to smuggle. I mean, I think of cash, you can move it digitally, right? Drugs, you can — they're so small. Art, it seems big and cumbersome.
Robert Wittman: [00:03:43] Yeah, that's true. But you know the thing about cash, drugs, and guns is that they're all illegal. There's a $10,000 limit that you can transfer outside or that you carry outside the United States. So you have to declare it. Of course, guns and drugs are illegal. They're contraband. So all of that is contrabands, illegal in and of itself. Art isn't. If you take a Picasso that's stolen, let's say, in Hungary and you transport it to France — well, first of all, you probably don't have to go through customs, to begin with, because of the open EU policies for countries. And if you do, if the customs agent at the border doesn't know that this Picasso was stolen from Hungary, he's not going to have any idea that that's a problem. Probably, he will think it's a reproduction or a copy of the piece.
[00:04:29] So that's why it becomes something that criminals like to take around, would like to use, because of the fact that it is portable. Generally speaking to which you're going to find out and what I've seen over the years is that the artwork that's actually stolen, like museum pieces worth billions of dollars, they're small, they're very small. They're maybe a foot high, that type of thing, not the huge canvases. No, they're small pieces. And the reason for that is because they are portable. It's easy to carry out two or three paintings from a museum, that are a foot a piece that are worth four or five million dollars. And so that's kind of a reason why those are the pieces that are stolen in these types of thefts.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:05:05] That makes sense, right? So if I'm carrying a kilo of cocaine and I get caught by a drug dog randomly while on a train or an airplane, I'm going to prison for a long time. But if I get caught with a painting, they're not going to say, "Well, this is probably stolen, a guy in a suit, carrying a painting and a painting container. We're going to have to call this in." They're just going to think I'm a regular guy carrying a painting or a little statue in a case.
Robert Wittman: [00:05:27] Or it could, you know, the obvious response is that it's a reproduction.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:05:30] Oh year.
Robert Wittman: [00:05:31] It's just a copy. So it's not in it and of itself contraband. And that's why sometimes it becomes a thing of value to criminals. But the problem is this, most of these criminals that are involved with these types of armed robberies and thefts, whether it's a museum or gallery or a home, they're not art aficionados. They're stealing because they think that the name on the painting, like a Picasso or Renoir or Matisse, is famous and therefore they can make money. They're better criminals than they are businessmen in fact. So the real art in an art heist, it's not the stealing, it's the selling of it. What are you going to do with a stolen painting worth millions of dollars when you don't have good title? That's always the issue.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:06:10] So moving it is the problem. And I thought it was interesting in the book, you mentioned that these guys are not in it because they love art, it's just pure greed.
Robert Wittman: [00:06:22] Yeah. We called art theft, a gateway crime for gangs. Using these gangs that we would pursue and had done these crimes, they weren't necessarily art thieves. They were thieves in general. So they were robbing banks. They're committing murders. They were doing aggravated assault, gun-running, drug-running, all of it together. And they just happen to do an art heist. Again, because they read an article in a newspaper that said that — or were on the Internet that said a Picasso is sold for a hundred million. So they figured, "Well, you know what? If we can go steal this Picasso, it'd be an easy heist and we can make a lot of money." Again, though, they don't realize that the three things that make an artwork valuable are provenance which is the history of it, authenticity which means it's real. It is what it's supposed to be. But the third thing that you got to have — it's the third leg of the stool that holds the stool up is good title. If you don't have good title, you don't have anything,
Jordan Harbinger: [00:07:14] Right. So you prove that it is what it is. You prove that it's — I guess what a chain of custody is that kind of what provenance is?
Robert Wittman: [00:07:20] Correct. Yes.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:07:21] And then I got to prove that I own it, and it's not going to get bought by you for $400,000 and then Interpol is going to come to pick it up in a week.
Robert Wittman: [00:07:28] Right, exactly. To find a legitimate buyer, who's going to pay $400,000. You have to have good title. Because if you don't, the buyer is buying a stolen item worth nothing. So that's the problem. You know, it's one thing to steal a $2,000 item and sell it at a flea market or, you know, third-hand through Facebook marketplace or something like that. But to go out and steal a hundred-million-dollar painting and try to make five million on it, you got to find the buyer. And buyers who have five million dollars to pay for a painting, they want good title.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:08:00] Right.
Robert Wittman: [00:08:02] They don't want to buy something it's not worth anything, and that can land them in jail.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:08:06] Where is the most stolen art stolen from? Is it stolen from the ground? Is it stolen from the museum? Is it stolen from some guy's house? Like what's going on? Where's it from?
Robert Wittman: [00:08:16] Well, the vast majority of art and antiques are stolen in burglaries from homes and not very expensive. It's not very valuable material under a thousand dollars. You know, it's grandmom's clock or it's photographed from the 1920s at the grandpop's wedding that type of thing. And that's really the most material that's taken. And most of these never recovered. Only five percent of stolen property is ever really recovered. But when it comes to the million-dollar artworks, those are taken from — what would you expect? They come from galleries. They would come from mansion homes. They come from places like museums. Those pieces are 95 percent recovered because again, ultimately, the only people who want to buy them are the police or the FBI like me. And we're the ones who do the undercover operations to go in and buy these pieces.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:09:03] It seems like Europe cares much more about this. There are dozens of art crime agents in Paris and the United Kingdom. Italy, you wrote, has hundreds of people. You said that Italy has an art crime submarine. Why do you need a submarine to get stolen art back? What's going on?
Robert Wittman: [00:09:18] Well, it's an investigative tool that they use because, you know, in the Mediterranean around Italy, around the coast of Italy, many, many ships sunk throughout thousands of years. All of that sunken material at the bottom of the Mediterranean is all considered antiquities the concern of the art of the nation. So again, they're doing the same thing there. They're using that submarine as an actual investigative tool, but yeah, the Carabinieri in Italy has 300 members in that brigade. There are three brigades and that's what they do, they do art theft investigation, antiquity investigation. And of course, that's because Italy has a history.
[00:09:53] Same with Greece. Both countries have major squads that protect their antiquities. Paris has 36, I believe, investigators. What they call the OCBC, which is their organized crime for art squad. These people are gendarmerie and the French National Police. And they work all around the country to recover art because there's so much art in France. Spain has two squads in Madrid. Of course, London has a famous art antique squad. So we were kind of late to the game. We didn't start our art squad here in the United States until 2005.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:10:07] What really? Wow. That is late is kind of an understatement, right?
Robert Wittman: [00:10:30] Yeah. We started the art crime team, that's what happened.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:10:33] Wow. That's ridiculous. I guess, so now that you mentioned the submarine, right? If they're looking at a shipwreck, if they're finding art that's stolen, they might want to go and make sure that it's like the place where they thought it was at the bottom of the ocean, that has been disturbed maybe or something like that. They're looking for things like that. I guess that makes sense.
Robert Wittman: [00:10:49] The archeologists use it too.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:10:51] Yeah.
Robert Wittman: [00:10:51] So the archeologists go out, the Greeks and the Italians, they go out and they find these wrecks. And then what they do is they map the wrecks over a certain amount of seasons. And I know where everything is in. They know where all the pieces are. And they can go in with the submersibles — the submarine — and look and see if things have been found. Now, what happens is the fishermen in the area, they also know about these wrecks. And the pieces that come up from the wrecks could be very valuable. Many times these pieces are ancient vessels that carried wine. They have grain in them. You've seen them. Usually, they were stacked. They were kind of wide at the top, came into a funnel at the bottom. And there are thousands of these all over the bottom of the Mediterranean from ships that sunk throughout the ancient world. These pieces are worth — if they're in good shape, tens of thousands of dollars to collectors.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:11:38] Wow.
Robert Wittman: [00:11:39] So the fishermen go in and actually clean out the rec sites. So that's how the antiquity squads keep an eye on these wreck sites to make sure nothing's been taken.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:11:48] Why do you think art crime hasn't been a priority in the United States? Is it simply because all of the quote-unquote ancient art that we have in the US is native American and we don't have a great history of caring about those people? I mean, I'm throwing that out there. I don't know.
Robert Wittman: [00:12:01] Well, I wouldn't say that. I think the reason we didn't have a directed art squad that was just doing nothing but art theft investigation and we still don't even the art crime team today. I started the team in 2005. Just for background — what had happened was I was working in countries all around the world, 22 different countries. Between 1988, 2005, when I came back here after doing a case in Denmark, I realized that we didn't have a team and all these other countries did. I've worked with those teams before.
[00:12:28] So there was no dedicated group that had training and art theft investigations or art fraud investigations. So in 2005, I went to headquarters in Washington and I said, "Look, let's create this squad like the other countries do — Carabinieri, the OCBC, the Spanish group the Guardia, in Ireland, all these different areas have art theft investigators.
[00:12:48] So headquarters said, "Okay." So we started with eight agents in the United States that we trained who were doing it as what we call a collateral duty. In other words, they weren't full-time art investigators. There were people who were doing public corruption cases, bank robbery cases, but they also did an art crime case if it came into their area of investigative venue. Since then, I think, there's like 21 people now on that team, which is great. They recovered more than, I think, $150 million worth of stolen art and cultural property over a thousand artifacts from a dozen countries. So they're doing a great job, but up until 2005, we didn't have it, that dedicated team. And that's because art theft is still considered a property crime. And that's basically what it is.
[00:13:29] It's the lowest level of crime that the FBI investigates. It's not a high level. I mean, international terrorism would be number one. Art theft would maybe number 14 out of 14, you know, fields. As far as property is concerned legally under the law, there's no difference between a Manet, a Monet, a Chevrolet. Okay. They're all the same. It's just property, it's value. And so a $50,000 painting. It's no different than a $50,000 Mercedes. So if somebody steals a Mercedes under the law, it's the same as a painting. We looked at it that way — we, the United States, all the way up through 2005.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:14:07] That makes sense. Okay. So they don't really attach as much or any cultural significance to the art. It's just like you said, it's the same thing as stealing a car of equal value. So if they're just looking at the value, maybe they say it's just not worth the investigative resources a lot of the time to get stuff like that back because it's insured. Nobody's got an FBI agent searching for my Mustang Cobra GT convertible. Right? It's just, "Get another one. It's insured. It's a painting. It's just property." Unless Europe says, "Hey, this priceless artifact — we need your help recovering it. It just goes on a list of stolen stuff," right?
Robert Wittman: [00:14:41] That's a great comment. You got a lot of different things happening there. So the first thing is when we talk about property crime, yeah, people would be looking for your Mustang GT Cobra. It depends on how it was stolen, whether it was taken across state lines. I mean, there are federal statutes that cover car theft, Interstate Transportation of Stolen Motor Vehicles. ITSMV is actually a federal statute that can be investigated by the FBI. And it's not that it's cultural property. Up until about 2003, you're right about that cultural property didn't matter. It was simply property crime involving value of the property. But in 2003 or 2004, the federal sentencing commission added what we call sentencing points or guidelines that added points to cultural property theft.
[00:15:27] So in other words, in federal sentencing, what happens is there's a certain amount of points that are allocated to crime and usually that's dependent upon the value, the matter, and method of the crime. Let's say if it's firearms use, you might have 10 points because a firearm was used in the commission of a crime. The value, let's say, it's over 10 million. You might add five more points. And the number of points you get on the crime is related to a table that tells you how many months in prison you're going to be sentenced to. So it's really a statistical situation that tells a person how many months in prison based upon the number of points.
[00:16:00] Well around 2003, the federal sentencing commission added points for cultural property, which was something brand new. So in other words, if a piece was stolen from a museum or a place where the cultural property is kept, you could add three points to that because it was affecting everyone's culture and it became cultural property. If it was taken by a person who had a certain amount of loyalty or responsibility to protect the artifacts, you can add points. So all those things were based upon cultural property.
[00:16:29] The reason that happened was because we did a case involving a war bonnet, an Indian war bonnet
Jordan Harbinger: [00:16:34] Like a headdress. Is that kind of what we're talking about?
Robert Wittman: [00:16:36] Exactly. It was an Indian headdress. It was worn in a dance in the early 1900s by the Apache medicine chief Geronimo. The story goes that around 1907 or 1909 when the Oklahoma territory became a state, there was a huge Pow-Wow. And all of the nations, the Indian nations got together and they danced for seven days. And on the last day, the star of the whole dance was the Apache medicine man, Geronimo. He was a captive. He was actually a guard, had been taken from a fort, and brought to the medicine Pow-Wow in order to be able to do the dance. And when he did it, he was given this buckskin outfit and this long eagle-feathered headdress, and he wore this piece. Well, that was passed down through families. And in 1999, we did a case involving that headdress because it was being offered for sale. And your listeners might not know this, but it's illegal in the United States to try to sell eagle feathers.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:17:29] I did not know that is that because it's just an endangered species. Is that the idea?
Robert Wittman: [00:17:33] Exactly. It was part of the Endangered Species Act. Also, there was a Bald Eagle Act passed in the 1940s to protect the eagles because they are the bird of the United States. It's a symbol. And so as a result, this individual was trying to sell this war bonnet. It's about a six-foot war bonnet made of eagle feathers for $1.2 million. And as a result, we were able to recover that piece. And we showed that to the federal sentencing commission who then added these points for prison sentences for cultural property. Realizing that there's a difference between a Chevrolet and an eagle-feathered war bonnet or a Monet.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:18:07] Right.
Robert Wittman: [00:18:08] We're able to make it a more important crime.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:18:10] Now, how is being in search of priceless art different than chasing commodity contraband, like weapons and cocaine?
Robert Wittman: [00:18:19] Well, priceless art, it becomes a passion. You know, I worked for a year in Philadelphia in 1989 during the epidemic involving a crack. I worked in many cases involving individuals who were taking crack and selling crack and crack houses and whatnot. It's not a passion, not a passion to take crack off the street. You want to do it. It's important, but it doesn't become a passion. Recovering stolen art, which does represent cultural history or does represent the genius of man — it does become a passion. The investigations are different. You don't go into a museum setting and spread fingerprint dust all around. You have to be careful. You can't be looking like that. There's a certain intellectual, or shall we say process involved in to determine where the art would have gone. Now, when it comes to drugs or guns, it could go anywhere but generally speaking, when we talk about art, it can only go to certain places.
[00:19:12] So knowing the world, the universe of the art market is really important to know who recovered that kind of art. To know how to do an art deal is very important, especially when these cases are usually made by undercover agents. That's very difficult to recover stolen aren't unless you just stumble upon it. That's one way you do to get it, but to actually conduct an investigation, determine who has the art, and then prove that, that person, first of all, has it. Secondly, he knows it's stolen, and thirdly he is willing to deliver it. That's a whole different type of investigation and takes on a lot of undercover aspects. So all of those things were important in recovering the art.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:19:48] I read in your book that thieves — and it made me cringe so hard, often thieves destroy the yard if they know they're being investigated. So your prime directive is to get the art and getting the thief as a bonus. And you had that story that just makes me just so sad that this woman dumped like a hundred paintings in a river to destroy the evidence because her son had stolen the art. That just makes me sick to my stomach to hear things like that. I'm not even an art guy at all but it's just such a waste, right?
Robert Wittman: [00:20:19] Yeah, that's an outlier. It usually doesn't happen.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:20:22] Thank God.
Robert Wittman: [00:20:23] But we do worry about that. I mean, we've had a case involving the Bill of Rights back in 1865, a union soldier was coming back up through North Carolina and he stopped with his unit to take over their Capitol Raleigh, North Carolina. And the group went into the State House and they came out with the North Carolina copy of the Bill of Rights. That was sent there in 1789 by George Washington to be ratified. Well, of course, each state had one and this was a North Carolina's copy. While this young trooper, he took it back to Indiana with him and he kept it. He took it out of the State House. It was North Carolina's Bill of Rights.
[00:20:56] So as a result, you know, that stayed there until 2002. And we were able to recover that in an undercover operation when it was offered for sale to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Of course, it was stolen property. It was owned by the people in North Carolina, the government. And we had to go through a rather elaborate situation to do an undercover operation to recover it because we didn't know exactly where it was, but it was being offered for sale. But he was the reason we did it that way because we were told that if we didn't buy it, it might go to a sheik supposedly. This was the term that was used as a sheik in the Middle East, who would destroy it as a propaganda type of thing against the US. And this is 2001.
[00:21:37] So as a result, we were very careful that we had to do this in our right way to get this thing back in one piece because that's our cultural history. Other than the declaration of independence, the Bill of Rights is the second "most valuable piece of history" in the United States. It's been estimated that the value is about a hundred million dollars if you could buy one. Of course, you can't. The United States owned them. So we are able to recover that in order to keep it from going into the wrong hands, where it might be destroyed. You know, that was the threat that we were working on. We really do worry about these being destroyed.
[00:22:10] But you know what I have found, Jordan, over the years, doing these cases? Thieves usually try to keep these pieces in good shape. And the reason for that is because they realize that if they destroy the art, they have nothing of value. So unlike a car where you can chop a car up and sell the parts for more than the actual car was worth. A piece of art, you can chop up.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:22:28] No, I don't only want the third amendment. I want the whole Bill of Rights.
Robert Wittman: [00:22:32] Excellent. That's right.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:22:33] Paste them on a piece of cardboard with a glue stick.
Robert Wittman: [00:22:35] Yeah, it would be tough because the Bill of Rights was actually written with blackball ink on vellum, which is a sheepskin. And this was a huge piece. It was actually a high from a cow. So, I mean, it's almost four feet high. That's where they did it. Yeah. It's all displayed right now, I think, in Raleigh, North Carolina at the State History Museum.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:22:56] I did not know. I figured they just wrote on a couple of century-old-day paper. I didn't realize they wrote on animal skin like that.
Robert Wittman: [00:23:02] You know, that's why they call them sheepskins when you got your diploma. That's called vellum. There was a sheepskin at one time.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:23:07] Wow. I did not know that. All right. Well, yeah.
Robert Wittman: [00:23:10] I'll tell you a funny story with that too. My partner, Jay Heine. He's another FBI agent and he's actually in Atlanta now. He and I covered this thing and it was April Fool's day, April 1st, and we were supposed to transport it down to Raleigh, North Carolina because that's where the actual case was. We recovered it in Philly, but the case was opened up in Raleigh because that's where it belonged and I had to be transported back.
[00:23:31] So in this situation, you can't run to North Carolina from Pennsylvania with a hundred-million-dollar object. It's just not something you usually want to do. So we requested and were granted the authority to use the FBI Directors' jet. So they flew to the jet up from Washington to Philly. We loaded the piece on, we had set it to our conservation box that was made specifically before that. And we flew it down to Raleigh, North Carolina. Well, the day before we went down, Jay and I went over to the National Constitution Center where they have a gift shop and we bought a little handheld copy of the Bill of Rights. It's on a piece of paper. It looks like an old paper, it's what it looks like. And we put it into the top of the box so that when we arrived on April 1st at the US Attorney's office, the FBI office in Raleigh, North Carolina, we walked in with a box and we had the — US attorney was there, you know, maybe the governor, the head of the FBI office, all these people standing around waiting to see this fantastic object, the Bill of Rights. So as we opened the box up, I knocked a little fake piece out of the top and it fell on the floor and Jay, of course, whatever, to pick it up and he stepped on it. And everybody went crazy. They thought we just dropped the Bill of Rights on the ground and stepped on it by mistake. You know, it looked like a Three Stooges act.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:24:45] You're listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Bob Wittman. We'll be right back.
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Jordan Harbinger: [00:27:11] And now back to Bob Wittman on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[00:27:16] So you had like a fake Bill of Rights that you are going to knock on the ground and then stomp on by mistake, just to mess with everybody who's been holding their breath for like three months for you guys to recover this thing.
Robert Wittman: [00:27:27] Exactly. Well, it was April Fool's Day, so why not, right?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:27:30] Yeah, why not, how did that go over?
Robert Wittman: [00:27:32] Nobody, nobody laughed.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:27:35] Nobody.
Robert Wittman: [00:27:36] Nobody. Jay and I laughed, but everybody else was very serious about it. But then we pulled it out and everybody was happy. You know, we took out the original. Just for a second, you know, we thought it would be a nice April Fool's Day.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:27:46] I think. I mean, look, after all that work, you got to diffuse the tension somehow to keep things light around the office. Yeah, I can see everybody just being kind of horrified because like, "Oh good. It's on the plane. It's safe. It's with two of my best men." And then you roll over there and rip the thing in half or whatever with your feet.
Robert Wittman: [00:28:04] Well, it wasn't that bad. But anyway, they didn't see the levity we did.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:28:08] It's weird where you find some of this stuff, right? Like you write in the book about finding — was it a giant Chinese ancient crystal ball found in a housekeeper's room or a garage, stuff like that. Like these art thieves, there they'd want to keep it in good shape, but they also just — what do they do? They give up on selling it and they just throw it somewhere. I don't understand why these things are just kind of willy nilly given to — I guess, these aren't the best judges of what to do with expensive property that they've stolen. Maybe that's what's going on, but it just seems bizarre to me. Like, you'd go through all the trouble to steal this ancient Chinese art, and then you stuff it in an attic at someone's house.
Robert Wittman: [00:28:42] That's what happens. I mean, as I said earlier, it's the problem here is that these art thieves, these thieves in general, they go in, they know how to do a crime, but they're not very good businessmen. So like I said, the real art in an art heist is just selling, in the case of the crystal ball, it was at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, which is a five-star museum. It's one of the best in the country when it comes to archeological material, fantastic material.
[00:29:07] Anyway, somebody went into what they call the Asian room back in — I guess, it was 1989. They stole this crystal ball. Now, this crystal ball weighs over 50 pounds. It was made over a 10-year or 20-year period by being rotated in a cylinder in diamond dust.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:29:23] Wow.
Robert Wittman: [00:29:24] And it was done by Chinese — it was a gift to Empress Cixi when she was married. It was part of her dowry. She was known as a Dowager Empress, and this was given to her. I guess it was collected in the 1930s by the Philadelphia Museum. So it was there and somebody went and stole that as well as a four-foot-tall sculpture of the god Osiris, the Egyptian god Osiris, which was over 2000 years old. And they took these pieces and we couldn't find them. It took us two years finally before we were given up a lead. And what had happened was the god Osiris showed up in an antique shop on South Street, Philadelphia.
[00:30:01] So one of the employees at the museum went in and saw it, they called the FBI. We went in and we were able to recover that. Of course, by doing our backup, we found that the piece had been sold to the antique shop by what they call picker. Now, many of your viewers or your listeners might have seen pickers on American Pickers —
Jordan Harbinger: [00:30:17] Oh yeah. I never knew what that meant actually.
Robert Wittman: [00:30:20] Right. That term was used because they pick trash. They pick the trash and they bring it in and sell it. Well, this picker was going around with an old shopping cart picking up trash on trash day. And he picked up this statute, which was out to be thrown away. So, of course, we found him and we were able to go back to the house. The address where he says he picked it up. We went and did the interview at the house. We knocked on the door. A young man opened the door. And we said, "Can you tell us about the statute?" And he said, "Yeah." He said, "When I bought the house two years ago, it was in my mudroom. It was just sitting there." And when he said, "My room is a little alcove out of his back door, off of that alley on South Street." So we said, "Well, that's fantastic." I said, "Do you know anything about a big glass bowling ball? Did you see that?" I didn't want to say crystal ball, because if I said crystal ball, that I would be given him the language. If he said, "Oh yeah, there was a crystal ball," then we know that he has knowledge of what we're looking for. So he said, "Yeah, there was a big ball there too." And that's fantastic. So we said, "Well, what happened to it?" And he said, "Well, I gave it to my housekeeper." I said, "Why would you give the ball to your housekeeper?" And he said, "Because she's a witch." So, of course, our response was, "What do you mean a witch?" He says, "Well, yeah, every which needs a crystal ball." So we said, "Great. Do you still have her number?" And he said, "Yeah." I said to him, "Give her a call and tell her two appraisers that are interested in seeing the crystal ball." So he does and she lives up and down Trenton, New Jersey.
[00:31:45] So my partner and I, we drove up to Trenton, New Jersey from Philadelphia. We knocked on the door and we're the two appraisers come in to see the ball. She lets us into the house and she takes us upstairs to the bedroom. On her bedroom dresser on a little stand is this 50-pound crystal ball. It's the second-largest crystal ball in the world. That's how fantastic it is. When you look into it, everything is upside down because of the nature of the crystal. So that it's like a mirror, but it's upside down.
[00:32:12] Anyway, so we're looking at it and she's got a — I think it was a New York Yankees baseball cap on the crystal ball. Remember this piece is worth $350,000.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:32:21] Wow.
Robert Wittman: [00:32:22] So we said, "Why did you put the baseball cap on the ball?" She said, "Well, because when the sun hit it, it would shoot out the rays and it would start little fires."
Jordan Harbinger: [00:32:30] Wow.
Robert Wittman: [00:32:30] You know when you have a magnifying glass — when the sun rays hit it. So she had to keep it covered so it didn't get the sun on it. So then we told her, we said, "What's the deal on the ball — where it came from, it was stolen." And we said, "You must be a good witch, right?" She said, "Yeah, I'm a good witch." So there you go. It's always good to find a good witch rather than a bad witch because then you might find that crystal ball
Jordan Harbinger: [00:32:50] That is amazing that the crystal ball could start little fires like that because I think, that alone is impressive to the way that this was made because you have to machine glass fairly well in order to do that or crystal in order to do that, don't you? It has to be really, really smooth.
Robert Wittman: [00:33:06] Oh, it was like a magnifying glass. Yeah. Like I say, it took 10 years inside of a cylinder that they kept rotating with water and diamond dust. They stuck a rock in there, a crystal, and created this perfect ball.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:33:16] Wow.
Robert Wittman: [00:33:17] Today, you can go to the University of Pennsylvania Museum and go to the Asian room. It sits right in the middle of the room on a stand under the glass dome with a building. And it's a highlighted piece within the room.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:33:28] It starts fires every other day when it was too sunny. Yeah.
Robert Wittman: [00:33:30] I don't know about that but you can go visit —
Jordan Harbinger: [00:33:34] Well, there's not enough sun in Philadelphia for it to start any fires or whatever it's located.
Robert Wittman: [00:33:36] Oh no. Did you know it's always sunny in Philadelphia?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:33:40] Yeah, that's right. You got me on that one. Well, how did you become an expert in art? Were you always an art aficionado? Is this something that runs in your family?
Robert Wittman: [00:33:48] Well, you know what happened was back in 1988, you know, 10 million years ago when I started at the FBI. The reason I went in was because I thought it would be neat to be an agent. And that was a time when there was a TV show called Hill Street Blues, and even better a show called Miami Vice.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:34:05] Oh yeah.
Robert Wittman: [00:34:06] I used to watch that show and see these guys on these cigarette boats, you know, in Miami Harbor, wearing these cool looking suits. I thought, you know, that'd be a fun job. I applied to the FBI. I went in. After doing the course of 16 weeks at Quantico, I got assigned to go to Philadelphia. Well, there was no Miami Harbor. There are dope cigarette boats. It's just 6,000 Philadelphia Police Officers with me. So when I get to Philadelphia, my first assignment is to work on that crystal ball case because the theft had just occurred. And also a theft of a Rodin piece, a sculpture taken from the Rodin Museum as well, which was a gunpoint robbery. Believe it or not. One of the few gunpoint robberies of Museums in the US. And in this particular one, a shot was actually fired. So those were the two cases I started working on.
[00:34:51] As we solved those cases and recovered them, I started to get that reputation in the office to work on these types of cases. And it just so happened that it worked out that way, that my parents were in the antique business. So as a result, the undercover work was pretty easy because I knew how to do a deal and the antique business and just the art market.
[00:35:09] So really when you're dealing with criminals who are basically thieves, who do all types of crime, they're looking to make a deal. The art dealer is a little bit different than your standard retail. I mean, most people, you know, when you talk about art deals, don't walk into galleries and just buy stuff. I mean, you can, and that's what happens, but there are many ways to do an art deal and these criminals are always looking for a secondary way to do the deal. And I know how to do that.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:35:34] You need a real level of expertise, right? You can't fake art expertise. So if you're doing your undercover operations, which I know you've done several of them, I want to get into that. I mean, you really can't just be wandering around and making off-color or not quite right comments because you're dealing with actual art experts some of the time, right? Like the thieves might not be, but if you're dealing with a crooked gallery owner, you can't come in and say, "Oh yeah, that red is really bright." And they're like, "Nah, art people don't talk like that. And that's not red. You know, it's Crimson." You know, you're using the wrong language and stuff like that. It seems like you could really blow a deal trying to fake this level of expertise.
Robert Wittman: [00:36:12] Well, you never, you never faked what you don't know. You know, there are certain precepts that are in the undercover world and there are certain things that you do that keep you safe. You know, one of them is to use your first name. I mean, anytime I went undercover, I was always Bob, somebody. Whatever the last name was didn't matter, but the first name was always Bob. And the reason for that is because when somebody calls you, you're supposed to respond. And if you're using the name, Tom, and you're not used to it, you're not going to look up. It's not your name. Just to give you an idea. That's just one of that. Another thing would be to stay as close to the truth as possible. Because if you're in long-term undercover operations, sometimes six months, a year, or two years, if you fill your whole background with lies, you have to remember all that.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:36:54] Oh yeah.
Robert Wittman: [00:36:54] And they're not stupid. These people, they're going to listen to what you're telling them. And if you say something different a year from now, they're going to remember, you said you had two kids back a year ago. Now, you got six. It doesn't make sense. You know, it's got to be outrageous, but that's the type of thing. And so you try to keep things as close to being real as you can. So in the art world, it depends on what type of undercover operation I was doing. If I was dealing with criminals who weren't art aficionados, it didn't really matter. I could be a gallery or professor or whatever I wanted to be because I know enough to be able to impress them.
[00:37:26] On the other hand, if I was dealing as a buyer to prove fraud — somebody selling a fake painting, and I want to prove that they're selling the fake painting, I'm acting as a dumb buyer when I'm doing there is just let them tell me the reality of the painting about what it's all about, or the artwork — it does not have to be painting — anything. And they're telling me the lie, which I would rely upon to buy. At that point. It's a fraud. So it depended on what the situation was. Or if I'm dealing with another gallery person, I'd say I was supposed to be a crooked gallery person representing clients, you don't have to know everything. I'll give you an example.
[00:38:00] I did undercover for six months in Santa Fe, New Mexico, dealing with native American art. And I was going to galleries there who were selling illegal native American art. The material that was taken from the ceremonial places, sacred material. So my client was supposedly a Norwegian who wanted to collect these materials and I was interested in buying them and he was from Norway. I was from Philadelphia. Remember I said, you got to keep it as true as possible.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:38:26] Right.
Robert Wittman: [00:38:27] And I'm talking to these individuals and they're saying to me, "Well, what do you do? What are you dealing with?" And because my family was involved in Asian art, I knew Japanese, Asian art very, very well. So they didn't know a Japanese Asian art but I didn't know Indian art. So as a result, they respected me because, you know, nobody knows everything about everything. No antique dealers know everything. They know a little bit about something or a lot about one thing. Okay. So my bona fides was my knowledge of Japanese art. They recognized that I knew that and not many police officers would know that. So as a result, they accepted me as one of them, another gallery guy, another art advisor with a client. And of course, the client supposedly knew nothing. So what we're doing is we're defrauding the client together and that's how you get involved in these cases. So to work undercover, you have to look at each case, determine what role you're going to play, and then take that role on.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:39:24] You have pretty interesting tactics for working undercover in the book. For example, and correct me where I'm wrong here, you always ask who else knows about this deal or who else knows that you have this piece. And so of course, any answer they give you is incriminating. So if they say, "Oh, well, you know, this dealer and this other group of guys, you know, or this crooked official, or this guy at this museum is who gave this to me. Those are the only people that know." So they incriminate all their comrades. And if they say, "Nobody." It's like, "Well, okay, so you stole this yourself." Right?
Robert Wittman: [00:39:54] Right. There are different ways of bringing out evidence from people. Basically working undercover, you're trying to collect evidence that the person gives you himself. And it's not that I used to like working undercover that much. It wasn't that. That was generally a way to investigate these crimes and approve the elements of the statutes, whether it's wire fraud, mail fraud, theft of major artwork from a museum, each of these statutes has elements that you have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.
[00:40:21] For example, if you're going to try to charge someone with Interstate Transportation of Stolen Property, ITSP it's a federal crime, okay, to take an object, stole an object across state lines, valued at 5,000 dollars or more, and knowingly do that. So, what you had to do was prove, number one, that it was stolen, which is not hard. That's pretty easy. You get a police report. Number two, that it was transported across state lines, like from Pennsylvania to New Jersey or New York to California, pretty easy. But then you got to prove knowledge, you got to prove that the person who transported it, how to transport it, knew it was stolen. So that's the undercover part. You had to get them to tell you, to admit that they knew that this piece was stolen and that it was moving across state lines. So that's why we would have to work these types of cases.
[00:41:08] Another reason would be to recover the artwork successfully. That way we could bring it out of the woodwork to have it come out and be offered for sale was to dangle a carrot a buyership and that's how we would get people to come out and do that. So there are different reasons for working undercover, but it's always the gain evidence or recoveries.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:41:25] Does that make sense, right? Because I think a lot of us just think we'll just get the art back, but really you have to put the thief away as well. That's the other half of the — or at least the other quarter of the equation. Primarily, you want to get the art back. If you can't put the thief away, you've spent a lot of time and effort, so you might as well fulfill those legal requirements of incrimination and evidence gathering.
Robert Wittman: [00:41:46] Yeah. For criminal cases, that's exactly right. I mean, the idea is to do both. Now, personally, if it came down to just getting the art back and not putting someone in prison, if that was what the choice was I would do it. And that's because it was important to get the art back to me. In civil situations, it's basically to recover a loss and oftentimes nobody's going to go to jail or anything like that. It's just to recover a loss. And that's a different situation. Now, a lot of art comes back when it comes to market. In fact, most of it does.
[00:42:14] And what we mean by that is, like I said earlier, I was doing undercover operations or something of that nature, but it also comes back when people die. So what happens is it gets stolen. Maybe it gets sold. Maybe somebody has it, or maybe a cousin or a brother inherits it. And the next thing you know, they're going to sell it. So they put it up for sale at one of the auction houses. Well, there you go. It comes up for sale. It's recognized. You know, a police report becomes available. Next thing you know, it's recovered. So that's how a lot of pieces do come back.
[00:42:43] So the one good aspect of this for this cultural property protection and heritage is that these pieces outlive us. So eventually everything will come back unless it's destroyed, which heaven forbid, we hope it's not. But if it's not sooner or later, it will show up because there are records. And no matter when it was stolen, it's going to show up. And when it does, we'll recover it,
Jordan Harbinger: [00:43:04] You wrote that you have to see the good in your target. Otherwise, you'll just see the people who steal this art as evil and that inhibits you in your undercover work. So you have to connect well with them. Can you explain that a little bit? I think a lot of people think, "Oh, undercover would be so good." It would be so fun. It'd be so interesting. And I'm sure it would, but I think the problem that a lot of normal folks might have is it's really hard to make friends with people over time, develop relationships, have a lot of meals with them, ingratiate yourself, and then essentially pull the plug on their entire business and life and throw them in prison for 20 years.
Robert Wittman: [00:43:38] Yeah. Well, you know, working undercover, basically, it's ingratiating people, making them want to do business with you. And so any scenario, you have to act like you care about the person as well. And these things take time. I mean, they don't happen in an hour or two. It takes weeks, months to develop that rapport with a person who wants to do criminal activity, basically, with you. So we call it befriending and betraying, and that's what it comes down to. To your question, you asked me — you said it could be a lot of fun. It's not really fun. It's not. Most FBI agents who law enforcement officers are not liars. It's hard to be a liar if you have a conscience, if you are ethical. The FBI stands for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. We also say fidelity, bravery, and integrity. And so, you know, when you are a liar, you have no integrity.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:44:28] Yeah.
Robert Wittman: [00:44:29] And so it's not a natural thing to do. You have to train yourself to be into it and look at it as a chess game. You always have to be one or two steps ahead of the person you're playing with. Yeah, it takes a lot of effort. I've heard it described as the most stressful operative technique in law enforcement. And I would agree with that. That is stressful. That's on your mind constantly, and you're constantly thinking of your next move. You're never comfortable lying. It's not something that people do naturally. Unless you're sick.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:45:00] Yeah, sure.
Robert Wittman: [00:45:01] Sociopath or narcissistic sociopath or whatever you want to call them. In those situations, those people are lying, don't mind it, but normal people don't usually do that.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:45:09] Well, if you're hanging out with criminals all the time, how do you avoid having to go get blackout drunk four nights a week? You know, doing a bunch of cocaine every weekend, three days in a row, and staying up all night, cheating on your wife. Like how do you hang out with bad people and ingratiate yourself, and also just not become a total scumbag yourself?
Robert Wittman: [00:45:27] Well, that's a, a situation where you have to control it from the very beginning. Every undercover agent does it their own way. I mean, they all have their own situations. The way I did it was I would talk about the fact that I had a wife. And that I had three beautiful children and I had no interest in losing my wife or my children or anything like that. And I had no interest in that. I wouldn't put myself in a position where I'd be at the club. You know, I'd say, "Look, meet me afterwards," you know, that type of thing. I mean, we're going to do business here. This is not about partying. Or if it has to be a little bit of a party, I'm there as a businessman or someone who's interested in buying something I'm not there as a party guy. So that's the first thing. The second thing about being blind drunk or taking drugs. I would tell them, you know, I would say things like, "You know, I've got a problem. If I had to take a drink, I'll wake up traveling down the street in Cleveland next week. I won't even know how I got there. We won't be able to do any business." So as a result, they weren't interested in seeing that happen.
[00:46:21] All of these things are human situations. You just use your basic humanity, all right. And everybody can connect on that level. That someone's got a problem with alcohol. Somebody who's got a wife and kids, they don't want to lose and they don't mess around. All those things are basic human concepts. And if you appeal to that, It's much less of a problem. Now, if you're in a situation where somebody says you've got to have a drink and you don't want to, you walk away. So I guess you don't want to do business.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:46:47] Yeah. That makes sense. It's like peer pressure. Yeah.
Robert Wittman: [00:46:49] Believe me. They'll call you.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:46:51] Yeah. Do you want a $400,000 deal or do you really want me to have this shot of vodka at a bar at 11:00 p.m.? Right?
Robert Wittman: [00:46:57] Yeah, which you won't see me for three weeks if I even stay out of jail.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:47:01] Right. Yeah.
Robert Wittman: [00:47:02] You know, that's what it does to me.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:47:03] That's a good thing right there. "Hey, man, look, I'm a recovering alcoholic. I'm prone to blackouts. I get violent, you know, it's going to be a huge problem. It's going to draw a lot of undue attention to me because I'm going to start acting up." Do you do that deliberately, as opposed to saying, making a moral judgment and saying, "Well, I don't drink and I don't do drugs, but you guys go have fun, you scumbags." Obviously, you would never say that, but it seems like you're probably deliberately avoiding driving a wedge between you and the target by making it about you and not about them or their behavior.
Robert Wittman: [00:47:33] Always, always. That's why I never carried a weapon as well because if you carry a weapon into a meeting, the first thing they're going to do is carry a weapon as well because they have to match you. So you don't want to look aggressive. You don't want to be somebody who's going to contest them. There's no reason for that. I'm here to do a job. "Let's do this business and will both make money. And that's what I like. It's making money."
Jordan Harbinger: [00:47:54] How do you avoid letting your undercover life subsume your real life or does that happen sometimes?
Robert Wittman: [00:48:01] Well, I was a little bit different than most guys at the FBI. I mean, there are groups of individuals who do undercover work and it's not a very big group at any given time. There might be 20 agents in the FBI who are actually working long-term undercover cases. It's not a very common thing. Okay. And what I mean by that is a lot of people do one case but that's it. They don't do it anymore. There's only maybe 20 who are always working cases undercover all over the country. So under the rules when I was there, an undercover agent could only basically be doing one case at a time, but because I was the only art guy I'd be involved in maybe half a dozen at a time at different places. Like, you know, maybe Peru and France and the United States, Atlanta, LA, and Philly.
[00:48:46] So I was always trying to keep things straight on who I was talking to, what role I was playing. And sometimes it does get a little bit rough because you'd be sitting there at dinner and you get a phone call or you're having a hotdog with your neighbors and you get a call from Miami, from a dealer down there who you've been working for six months. And you know, you have to go into that role right away. You just keep it separate because your work is your work and your family is your family. And that's two different things.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:49:12] So you could be sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner with your family and joking about kids and homework and wrestling with your son or something like that. And then you get a phone call and you got to be scumbag Johnny who doesn't give a crap about anything but money and is down to steal something, and fence it. That's got to be kind of a tough switch. Do you do anything mentally to do that or is it just like — take a deep breath, pick up the phone, and there you are?
Robert Wittman: [00:49:37] That's what it is. You take a deep breath and you pick up the phone and there you are. You just remember — you stop for a second and remember what the case is, which case it's going to be.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:49:44] Right.
Robert Wittman: [00:49:45] If it's the one from Miami, you recognize the phone number and say, "Oh yeah," so I'm going to be this. And basically, you just adapt to it for each thing. A lot of times, I do let it go into voicemail and then call back.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:49:55] Yeah. That makes sense, yeah.
Robert Wittman: [00:49:57] Because it's easier to record that way.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:49:59] Oh, yeah, I haven't thought about that. I was thinking more like, "Oh man," you're playing Nintendo with your kids. And it's like, you got to pick up and say, "Hey, okay, hold on eight-year-old kid, I got to be a criminal for 15 minutes. And don't say anything like that could personally identify us." I don't know. It just seems really hard to balance those.
Robert Wittman: [00:50:16] Yeah, you learn to do it over time. And if you don't, you shouldn't do it. Get out.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:50:20] Yeah. It seems like a good time to get out if you can't balance those things. I know one of your rules is never fake expertise you don't have. We kind of touched on that earlier. That seems wise, but you also mentioned there's a lot of little undercover stories in the book that, I think, are pretty fascinating. If something makes you nervous, like getting in a target's card, don't do it. Just make an excuse. It seems like that's a great tip, but also probably really hard to do in the moment, especially if you can kind of almost just taste the deal. It's right in front of you. It's just like, you're ready to close it, but something just doesn't sit quite right. Do you trust your intuition over everything?
Robert Wittman: [00:50:54] Oh, absolutely, I mean, you know, whatever your intuition is telling you. You know fear is invaluable. It tells you when something's wrong. And, you know, if you're in fear, that means that you need to rethink whatever it should do. And nothing you're doing is worth your life or anybody's life for that matter. It's a situation where you have to judge the value and the value of life's always more than any object. So if there's a fear situation, then you want to back out.
[00:51:22] In fact, towards the end of my career, in 2007, I was in Warsaw, Poland, and we were recovering these stolen African masks that were taken from the National Museum in Zimbabwe. They were taken from the museum there and they ended up in Poland. They were being offered for sale to a dealer in Denver, Colorado who contacted us. Then we started the undercover operation. So I was going to go beat the criminals. I was staying at one hotel. I was in a taxi cab going to the other hotel to meet with the bad guys. The Polish National Police were going to be there, their SWAT team and all that. And I was in the back of the cab, driving over, it's around midnight, going to the, I think it was Sheraton Hotel. And I didn't feel any fear. I didn't feel any kind of apprehension, nothing like that. No adrenaline.
[00:52:05] And at that moment, I realized that — you know what, it's time to quit because when you don't have any of that, you're not on your toes anymore. You know, you're not really into it anymore. And that was the night I decided that I wasn't going to do any more undercover operations. And in fact, I didn't after that, after December of 2007. And that's the reason. I lost the edge, which is the fear. It worked out fine. We went and got the material. The Polish team came in, they caught the bad guys. They speared me away very quickly. I was out of the country the next morning and it was all done. But that's when I realized that the loss of that fear is really a big deal. That's what you need to start rethinking what you're doing.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:52:43] This is The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Bob Wittman. We'll be right back.
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[00:55:32] It's interesting that you look at fear as an asset, as a tool, as opposed to something that you need to inoculate yourself against.
Robert Wittman: [00:55:39] Right. Well, maybe it's not fear. Like you said intuition of apprehension. I guess I call it fear, but that's what gives you that edge that you notice everything. That you see everything much more clearly. When you don't have that, you know, you can be surprised and that's a bad thing to be undercover.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:55:56] Yeah, it sounds like something you would definitely seek to avoid. Like that little bit of adrenaline seems like it would be a win. And you mentioned something that I thought was actually quite genius in the book, and I'm not sure if I'm reading into this too much, but you call this the decoy where you find a bond with the target that doesn't have anything to do with the case at hand. And at first, I thought, "Oh, okay. You're just building rapport but actually, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like — it gives you an outlet for any nervousness or any fear that you have. If you can sit there and ramble on about golf because you know your target loves golf. Then you're talking quickly, nervously, excitedly. It's not weird. You're talking about a hobby that you both share. If you don't have that. And then you start rambling and talking about things, it might seem a little off. That fear could come through.
Robert Wittman: [00:56:42] Right. The idea of finding the decoy is to, first of all, create that rapport as you said. Ingratiate yourself to the person. And then secondly, when you're involved in a long term undercover, you don't talk business 24/7. Sometimes you call the target up or the suspect up and you talk about other things and you might even do our legitimate deal with them. You might even buy something from them legitimately. You know, that's not fake, it's not stolen to show that you're a regular person that you're actually involved in this type of business.
[00:57:13] So the point there is that you've created this called befriending. Befriending before you betray. It's a part of the entire operation. And that's where sometimes it makes it difficult at the end when you do have to betray that person, again, because you are a loyal type of human being, to begin with. That's why you're in law enforcement, you have a band of brothers type of feeling. You have fidelity, bravery, integrity, loyalty to the cause, to the constitution. And you feel loyalty to the public. You know, you're doing it to serve the public. When you do have to betray someone, it goes against the grain. It really does. It's not a normal thing. That befriending, that discovery of a decoy, it makes it harder at the end
[00:57:53] You know, as I said, but not everyone is evil because they do a criminal act. It doesn't mean that their entire persona psychology is evil. It just means they did something stupid or they're involved in some kind of stupid scheme, but they could be great parents. You know what I mean? Or they could be great children to two parents. They care about their mother and father deeply, whatever the situation is. So you have to identify that good part in order to make them into people so that you can understand them and then know how to manipulate them, befriend them, then betrayal and all of that's part of the undercover work.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:58:30] Yeah. That's got to be tricky. Because on the one hand, it's like, all right, I got to befriend them. I've got to see the good in them. I've got to look at how great of a father this guy is. And then I have to turn around and throw the book at this guy for the scheme that he's involved in. Is that stressful? Does it weigh on your conscience a little? Like sometimes these guys are killers and they'll go after somebody's family and they're just terrible people and putting them away is probably really satisfying. But other times you've got to be a little conflicted, right?
Robert Wittman: [00:58:56] Oh, you always. As a criminal investigator, I was trying to understand the other side. In other words, why were they involved in this? What was the point and what was the background that brought them to it? That helps you understand where they're coming from. So it was always part of it. Sure. In any situation when you're a criminal investigator, there comes a point where people are convicted or whatever the situation is, if you did your job, they're going to have a family. I don't care if they are armed robbery suspects. I don't care if they've — you know, even if, as you said, murderers, there are people behind who are devastated. I mean, there's a family there. There's a wife, there are children, there are parents that are devastated. Like you said earlier, you are destroying a family to a certain degree every time you get in a lot more of these cases. And you have to understand that and take that as part of the job. That's what you're doing but it doesn't mean you don't feel bad about it. Anyone who doesn't either they're lying or they're sociopaths.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:59:48] One bust — this guy, was his name Joshua Baer? Or am I imagining that?
Robert Wittman: [00:59:52] Yeah, Joshua was his name.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:59:53] Yeah. He wrote you a friendly letter after the bust. That had to be a little weird. And that really, for me, illustrated this kind of tension, this kind of dichotomy between undercover officer and target pretty well.
Robert Wittman: [01:00:07] Yeah, we worked on that case for about six months and I had been to dinner at his house. I knew his family. He and I had become friends. That's the only way we could do the business. Ultimately, he was arrested. He was caught. Yeah. He wrote me a note. He said that he was devastated by the fact that I was an undercover agent and that's the situation. And he said that he recognized that he had done the wrong thing and that he hoped that someday it would be a different situation. It happens, you know. And when those things happen, you just have to look at the fact that he's not an evil person. He just made some mistakes. And so as a result, he's going to have to pay for his mistakes and then walk away a better person.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:00:48] The book you're talking about sometimes not wanting the role to end, the undercover role, and you feel deflated when the operation is over. What's going on there? That's not something I expect to see or hear.
Robert Wittman: [01:00:59] It wasn't quite like that. What I was saying was when you have an undercover operation going, it's like having a tiger by the tail. It's going to tear you around and take you all over places. So you're going to be following it. It's just something that you put your heart, mind, and soul into. As I say, it's like a chess game, you have to be two steps ahead all the time. And when the case is over, when it's solved, when you've caught the individual, when you've got the art material back, whatever it happens to be, when it's all done, there's deflation because you got to start all over again on the next case. And so you got to go right from the beginning, all the way starting over again, getting back into it. And as I say, when you're doing these cases for a while, they take over your life, you think about it all day. You think about it before you go to sleep. What are you going to do next? How's this going to work? What you're going to say? What they're going to say to you? How are you going to respond? And then that's all gone, like in a heartbeat, as soon as it's over
[01:01:50] And then you have to start over again. And then, you know, whenever you finish one project and get it to the next one, there's a moment where there's a relation because it's over but then there's that deflation because now you've got to move into the next one. But I have to tell you the next case is always the most interesting. One of the questions people always ask me, what's your most interesting case? And my response is always it's the next one because I know what happened in the last one. The next one's most interesting.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:02:13] There are moments where you discuss bringing in the SWAT team, right? Like you're, you're made the buy, they just brought up the art, you just handed over the money and you've got these little codes — sometimes it's a gesture. Your favorite was, or at least from the book, it sounded like your favorite was, "Are you guys hungry?" Do you just nonchalantly say, "Hey, are you guys hungry?" And then a SWAT team burst in the door because I'm imagining that must be so satisfying.
Robert Wittman: [01:02:39] Yeah, the actual term that I use most often because there would be a microphone, you know, recording us. It would be, this is a done deal. I would look at everything. I'd say the painting is correct. Everything looks good. Sculptors are good. And I would say, this is a done deal. And that deal meant that was the code term for the SWAT team to come in. Because by then, it was a done deal. I had all the evidence. It was good. Again, we had all the conversation we were going to make, and it was ready to be closed up. At that point, they would come in.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:03:06] Do you feel like you appreciate the art more when it's back in the place where it's supposed to be? Because you're handling this. No one gets to do that. Right? Like someone hands you a Picasso, it would be as an art lover. I would imagine, you know, I'm not into art, but I would imagine that that's pretty sweet. You're holding onto this amazing piece of art. You never get to just touch it and grab it and put it in a bag or is it more satisfying to you to see it on the wall in a museum?
Robert Wittman: [01:03:30] For me, seeing the art on the wall in the museum is great. You're right. I like holding it. When we recover it, I like to sit and look at it and hold it up. Take a picture of it because it was gratifying to finally recover the piece. And I enjoyed looking at the art closeup that way, front and back, all around to see how it was constructed. So that was more fun for me. It's more fun for me to actually have the piece.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:03:56] If you're an animal lover. You know, seeing animals in the zoo, it can be a little heartbreaking, but if you've got to go on a Safari, you know, that's kind of like what you're doing, or you're going to a place where you can touch the animals and pet them and they're not miserable. They're not in a cage. That's kind of like what you're doing with the art. You get to hold it, you get to look at it because you run your fingers across the frame and you get to see — like you said, look at the back of it and how it's constructed. Like that just seems infinitely more satisfying.
Robert Wittman: [01:04:20] Yeah. It's a good feeling to be able to do it. It's a eureka moment when you get the art back.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:04:24] Did you ever have any close calls? I'm trying to lead you to this story where — was it you that used all these photos from like the FBI stolen art website or something like that?
Robert Wittman: [01:04:35] Yeah, we had a case in Madrid, Spain, where about $65 million worth of stolen art was being offered for sale. It was 17 paintings that were taken from the same collection. I had been missing for about a year, year and a half. So we had an informant that told us some information about where it could be. And we went over to Madrid, started meeting with the bad guys who had stolen the art. What I had done was I had downloaded the photographs from the FBI stolen art site on the Internet. And I had cut off all the identifiers. So it was just the pictures. So I'm showing them to see which paintings he still had for me to buy. He was going to sell me 10 of them for, I think, $11 million. So we're sitting in a hotel in Madrid around three o'clock in the morning, in the lobby of the hotel on an old couch.
[01:05:17] And I pulled out the folder and I started pulling the paintings out. And he pointed out he has this one, he still has this one. He still has that one. He looks at me and says, "They're from the FBI art website." And I said, "Oh-oh." Just for a second, I clenched up. And I said, "Yeah, yeah, it's the Internet. It's the best place to get the pictures. It's free." And he says, "Oh yeah, good pictures." And we kept going but he actually recognized that his photographs, the construction of the photos, were from the FBI website. And so it just shows that he was watching all over the world. Either he's a guy in Spain looking at the Washington website to see where his stuff's showing up.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:05:55] How did that happen? I mean, that seems a little lazy, Bob that you just happened to use, like, "Oh yeah. I'll just get them off the FBI website." Like, what were you — were you the one that put that together?
Robert Wittman: [01:06:03] Unfortunately, yes. I downloaded them and printed them out and you know, cut them up so that they look like they were just photographs. But he recognized the formats as being from the website. So he must've been looking at that website a lot because for him to actually recognize. I mean, there were just pictures of pictures.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:06:21] Yeah.
Robert Wittman: [01:06:22] But for him to know that that was pretty interesting.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:06:24] Yeah. I would imagine you clinched up for sure. It kind of goes to what you said before with art may be priceless, but it's not worth your life. I would imagine there are a few times where you think. "You know, what if this is going South? I'm sorry missing headdress or sorry, missing war bonnet or sorry, missing painting, this is not going to happen."
Robert Wittman: [01:06:42] Yeah. You're making an excuse and you walk out. If the piece is there in a room, you're calling the backup teams, whatever they are, SWAT or whoever, and they'll come and do what they have to do. I never really reached a position where, you know, I had to walk away like that. I guess I could talk myself out of most things. I thought my best weapon was always your brain and your ability to talk yourself out of it, not a gun or a knife or anything like that. The fewer those to the better.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:07:08] Yeah, no kidding. It seems like the — as art becomes more valuable and the money goes up, you're going to attract more experienced and possibly more dangerous thieves as a result. Is that the case?
Robert Wittman: [01:07:21] Well, these were thieves. I mean, you know, like I said, it's not that hard to go into a museum and steal a painting. If you're willing to go in and take the chance to break the door down and run in and run out, you could do it, especially in Europe because the cards don't have weapons usually. That's usually where it happens in Europe. It doesn't happen that much in the United States. In fact, very seldom do we have any kind of museum heist. The reason for that is because security is very good in the US. The buildings are newer. There are all kinds of IT security. We have armed guards, the police departments are nearby and you know, basically, you can't go from one state to the other without a police department following you. I mean, in Europe you can. So it's a different situation between the United States and Europe. So we don't have that much happening here when it comes to armed robbery of paintings and sculptures and art. Well, what we have more here is fraud. There are people buying fakes. So it's a different type of crime here.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:08:14] Do you think it's easier to rob a museum than it is to rob a bank?
Robert Wittman: [01:08:17] No, I think bank robbery is probably easier.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:08:20] Really?
Robert Wittman: [01:08:20] Yeah, because you walk into a bank and you stick up the teller and the teller gives you the money or whatever in a bag and you run out. It's pretty quick. That's why there's a lot more bank robberies than there are museum robberies. But I think a museum, you have to kind of plan that out. Are you going to go in when it's open — you're going to go in when it's closed? How are you going to get in when it's closed? How are you going to defeat the surveillance? So I think it's easier to rob a bank.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:08:44] Do the criminals you work with ever suspect that you're a cop and just kind of do the deal anyway.
Robert Wittman: [01:08:50] Every time we would do an undercover operation, the first thing they would always say to me is, "I knew it. I knew you're an FBI agent," after it was over. That's the first thing that would say to me. And I'd always look at him and say, "Well, if you knew it, why'd you do it. Why do deal with me?" They didn't know, but they always would say that, trying to save face to a certain degree. I can't tell you how many times I smiled and laughed at that when they said, "I knew it."
Jordan Harbinger: [01:09:12] I read that you always call your wife before undercover busts. Why do that? What does that do for you?
Robert Wittman: [01:09:18] One of the things I would do before an undercover operation before I walked in — I'd be involved in the operation. We maybe do 10 meetings, 20 meetings, whatever. Look, each meeting was separate. And what I would do before I walked into that new meeting was I would call home wherever I was. If I was in Madrid or if I was in Poland or whatever, where I'd be, I'd call home, just talk to my wife for a minute. And what that would do is two things I could tell her that I loved her and I could tell her that I was getting ready to go in and that I would call her when I got back out. And thirdly, the idea was that it would ground me. She would tell me something the kids were doing. Maybe it was a bad day at school or whatever it would be. It made me feel less apprehensive. Maybe remember what's important, and basically, calm me down. It worked for me. It might not work for all the guys. Everybody was doing stuff. I don't know, but it worked for me.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:10:05] Have you ever heard of an art forger named Ken Perenyi by the way. He was on the show.
Robert Wittman: [01:10:09] Ken Perenyi, yeah, sure. He was from Florida.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:10:11] I thought of him when you wrote that you inspected the paintings using UV because the UV coating on an old painting is there and it's pretty uniform because of the age. And I remember Ken Perenyi finding out about that. Taking old worthless paintings, dissolving the varnish with a solvent and then putting it in a jar and spray painting it onto his forged painting so that when somebody like yourself, for example, would inspect it, it would look old.
Robert Wittman: [01:10:39] Right, right. Yeah. You know, it's interesting with forgers — that's a whole different situation from thieves. That's two different things. Forgers can be very, very technically correct to try to defeat forensic investigation. I always thought, you know, these guys did these fabulous forgeries if they would just put their mind to doing art, they'd probably do pretty well. They could do real art themselves and do pretty well. Because in order to do a forgery, you have to be a fairly good painter. You have to have some knowledge of how to paint. And the fact that they would go to such great lengths to defeat forensic investigation of UV light or whatever or to go out and find ancient canvases or go out and find paints that existed at the time, the real paintings were made. All that work they would go through if they just did a real painting, they'd be all right. It would be very valuable.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:11:29] With Ken, that's episode 282, he wanted to just paint, you know, and then he realized, "Wow, this is really hard for me to make money." And through various shady dealings and, and probably kind of a troubled childhood, he found that he could pay the rent by making some forgeries here and there. And then it just became the thing that he was getting paid to do all the time. And that forging almost became his art, right? Because he is a super talented and skilled painter. He really can make some — now, he makes paintings for people that request them and he doesn't bother with fake UV coating and stuff like that, of course. But it's brilliant. It looks amazing. It looks just like any sort of world-renowned artist would paint even from the old time and the styles that he can mimic and he can create new originals. And he mentioned that the art he's creating now from these masters who are long since deceased, he says, he'd like to think that that's what they'd be doing now if they had lived longer and their art had sort of evolved and used modern tools. And I don't know how much of that is sort of like fluff and how much of that is really the case because, honestly, I think if he had had it his way — and I asked him about this — if he had had it his way, he would never have had to forge stuff. He would have just sold his own art and been appreciated for the skill that he had.
Robert Wittman: [01:12:42] Yeah, I think that's true. I think that master forgers, you know, you have to understand throughout history, students have copied masters. I mean that's what they do. It's how you learn. There are paintings of Duluth of artists with their easels painting paintings. You'll see the original painting on the wall and you'll see an artist sitting there actually reproducing the painting that's on the wall. And there are paintings of them doing that. And that's how artists learn to paint. They look at a master and they see the technique and the brush stroke and what's been used and that's how they learn to paint. But you know, something, Jordan — and this is something I always thought — the real art of an artist. It's not the image. It's him being able to paint what he sees, the way he sees it. So that's impressionism, that's Picasso in all his different periods. And that evolution through an artist's life, they start with one thing and they move forward and forward, forward.
[01:13:38] Dali, for example, was a fantastic painter. He could paint and then he moved on to surrealism. He started creating surrealism. The surrealism wasn't as painterly as his original works, but it was a different kind of work. He moved on in his art. Picasso grew. He went through all different stages of his life. And each stage was a masterwork of life, each stage of painting.
[01:14:02] So the real artists they grow, they create, they do different things throughout their lives. People who do forgeries. They're good at one thing, this is what they do, and they don't come out with any creative. There's no creation of new work. Do you understand what I'm saying? The difference between creating new work that takes you to the next level versus constant just repeating the same thing over and over and over for whatever reason, because you can sell it or not.
[01:14:28] To give you an example, I love Renoir. I really do. I love Renoir's works, but if you look at one Renoir, you've seen a lot of them. One girl is the same as the next girl, same as the next girl. I mean, they're just repeated over and over. There's no evolution beyond a certain point. Whereas I had to say with Picasso, who again was a very master painter, in the beginning, he's evolved to things which only been recognized, cubism and all that. It's a different type of creativity. That creativity is what makes great art.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:14:58] In movies, in TV shows, when we see undercover busts and things like that, they're often in a fancy hotel room or they're on some kind of yacht. Bust this myth if it is a myth. How often are you as the FBI renting a yacht and staffing it with all of your people and then taking down some kind of drug dealer or art thief in that situation? Or is it usually just like meet at the Holiday Inn Express and kick the door in. How often are we talking about? Is the tax dollars go into the yacht rental place, I guess, is what I'm asking you?
Robert Wittman: [01:15:28] Well, the yacht rentals would be rented. That's usually a CS yacht from drug dealers. So the government owns a yacht.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:15:33] That makes me feel better.
Robert Wittman: [01:15:34] Yeah, so there's no rental there. I did both. We use both depending on what was appropriate for the specific situation. You know, we used hotel rooms, we use yachts, we use whatever was appropriate to make the deal happen. But usually, we try to pay the government rate for the hotel rooms.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:15:51] Yeah. It might be a little bit of a red flag if they're like, "Yes, sir. This was the one that had the FBI discount room 17." "Let's go. Yeah, let's get out of here."
Robert Wittman: [01:15:59] It could be a problem.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:16:01] Yeah, it could be, oh man. Bob. Thank you so much for your time. This has really, really been interesting.
Robert Wittman: [01:16:05] No, it's been great talking to you. I hope your listeners enjoy it.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:16:10] Now, we just hit 400 episodes here and people always ask me, what are your favorite episodes? What are your favorite episodes? It's always hard to pick a favorite, but here I'm going to run a trailer for you with Howie Mandel. One of the most iconic comedians of our day and a judge on America's Got Talent, how he spent some time with us being, especially candid about his anxiety and about how he turned from being impulsive into a super-power and more.
Howie Mandel: [01:16:33] So what happened was we were doing — not unlike we're doing now where you're doing an interview — and he says, "Thank you and we'll probably go to a commercial and thank you, Howie." And I got up and I started walking to the door and I thought he was like wrapping it up and going to commercial. And then I just said to somebody really quietly, "Can you grab the door?" And he goes, "What are you afraid of the door?" And then he goes, "Just open the door." And I go, "I can't open the door." He goes, "Just open the door." And then what happened is I started getting a panic attack and I started breathing heavy. And I just turned to him, and thinking that he had already thrown the commercial because he was just talking to me. "Howard, please, this is really serious. I go to therapy for this. I have something called obsessive-compulsive disorder. I'm about to pass out. If you don't open the door for me now, you'll be calling 911 and taking me to the hospital." This whole thing was on national radio. I thought, "Oh my God!" That was probably the darkest space I've ever been and I'm walking through the lobby toward the door out to the teeming streets of Manhattan. I might as well just continue walking and walk right in the traffic. And I stopped just outside the door. You know, millions of people are on the street, but I felt very alone. And some guy came into my periphery and said to me, "Are you Howie Mandel?" And I just nodded affirmatively. And he said, "I just heard you on Stern. And my heart dropped into my stomach." And right before I could take off in the traffic, he said two words, which means something very different today, but they changed my life and he went, "Me too."
Jordan Harbinger: [01:18:06] For more with Howie Mandel, including some pretty awkward moments of my own making, check out episode 210 here on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[01:18:15] Big thank you to Bob Wittman. You know, art thieves, they steal culture and history. Shout out to our Roger Atwood episode about art thieves, just ruining archeological sites, ruining the natural context, running the ability of other people like us to see and enjoy this art when it's sitting in some thieves garage or some rich guy's basement. The US government won't pay for stolen art to get it back. You have to actually find a museum to buy it. It kind of goes along with our policy, not to negotiate with terrorists. You can't just buy the art back. Otherwise, it'd be a great business to just steal art because you know you've got a buyer in the US government. You actually have to find a museum to buy it or to pretend to buy it and then bust the thieves that stole it or the seller.
[01:18:57] I found it interesting that Bob couldn't use that many dealers or gallery owners as informants because the art world is actually too corrupt. It's riddled with crooks and they can easily talk and it's a very small industry. So he really had his work cut out for him because it wasn't like this big industry where you find a couple of people you can count on or a bunch of people you can count on and then you never see him again. It's a small world with a bunch of people that can't be trusted. And I thought that was kind of an interesting point that we didn't really get to discuss during the show.
[01:19:24] Most museum theft, by the way, is actually an inside job by employees. There's not a whole lot of people kicking in the door and going and grabbing stuff. Almost all of it has to do with somebody that works at the museum. Turns off, leaves the back door open, unlocks a case, and goes home for the day, that kind of thing. And art recovery, the reason the FBI does it even though there's only like one agent, now zero, that were doing it, it makes the FBI look good. And that was especially important after the Waco Branch Davidian debacle, where the FBI essentially burned down on a cult compound with a bunch of people eating breakfast in it, that was loaded up with a bunch of folks. It was one of the worst bungles in FBI history. So they figured having an art crime division where they recovered stolen works was just always good news and good press. And now, apparently, they're not too worried about that these days. I don't know, Bob Wittman retired and that was it.
[01:20:15] Big, thank you to Bob Wittman. The book title is Priceless. Links to that will be in the show notes. And if you buy any book from any of our guests, please use the website links. It does help support the show. And yes, they work in other countries too. Worksheets for the episode in the show notes, transcripts for the episode in show notes. I'm at @JordanHarbinger on Twitter, Instagram. You can hit me on LinkedIn.
[01:20:34] I'm teaching you how to connect with great people and manage relationships, similar to what Bob Wittman had to do as an undercover. Only you probably won't get shot at or find any stolen art. But anyway, that's at jordanharbinger.com/course. It's a free course. Dig that well before you get thirsty. Most of the guests on the show subscribe to the course and the newsletter. Come join us, you'll be in smart company.
[01:20:55] This show is created in association with PodcastOne and my amazing team, including Jen Harbinger, Jase Sanderson, Robert Fogarty, Ian Baird, Millie Ocampo, Josh Ballard, and Gabriel Mizrahi. Remember, we rise by lifting others. The fee for this show — this free show — is that you share it with friends when you find something useful or interesting. If you know somebody who's interested in undercover work, art, art theft, heists, then share this episode with them. Hopefully, you find something great in every episode. So please share the show with those you care about. In the meantime, do your best to apply what you hear on this show, so you can live what you listen, and we'll see you next time.
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