A presentation on art theft. In an art museum. Why not, I thought.
Last night Late Night at the DMA hosted a full room in the auditorium for a presentation by Art Detective Robert Wittman. That was followed by two films, Stolen, a film about the 1995 heist at the Gardner Museum in Boston and F for Fake, the last major film completed by Orson Welles.
The highlight was certainly Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures. Wittman is the founder of the FBI Art Crime Team and author of Priceless, which had sold out of the gift shop following the lecture.
Wittman spoke a little about the theft at the Gardner Museum, but most of the lecture focused on his recovery of a self-portrait by Rembrandt that had been taken from the Swedish National Museum in 2000.
Wittman said 90 percent of art thefts are committed by insiders, but told two stories about art thieves from the outside, beginning with a case in Philadelphia where a trio of outsiders stole some artifacts from Pennsbury Manor, the country home of William Penn, then got scared and, unfortunately for our cultural history, threw them into a river.
The story of the mission to return the Rembrandt was one with considerable more skill and suspense than finding the yokals who broke into Pennsbury, however. The Pennsbury thieves simply kicked in the front door. Getting the Rembrandt involved two car bombs and a getaway boat.
While the goods from the Gardner heist have not yet been recovered (a fact that made the film that followed the lecture seem less than complete), Wittman and his team got their break when they ran across a drug dealer in Los Angeles named Boris. The operation was dubbed Bullwinkle. The name comes from the character in the cartoon.
Wittman showed actual clips from the sting. The guys with the goods thought Wittman was an authenticator from buyers in Russia and agreed to sell the $36 million painting for $250,000. Wittman says once in the hotel room with the painting, he looked at the back to see if the screws had been removed. They hadn’t, and Wittman commented to the thieves that the painting had not been removed from the frame. “Of course not, it’s a Rembrandt,” was the response.
Even art thieves have some respect for great art.