Modern day Monuments Men: FBI Art Crime Team founder talks about real-life treasure hunting

Pierre Thomas, Richard Coolidge, and Alexandra Dukakis
Power Players

Power Players

What do Monuments Men, Indiana Jones and James Bond have in common? All of them face villains who, among other offenses, are guilty of stealing prized pieces of art and artifacts. And in a striking comparison to these heroic treasure hunt stories popularized by movies, there is a real-life group of detectives working within the U.S. government today to restore lost and stolen art: Meet the FBI Art Crime Team.

“You’re not going to do the same type of investigation that you would for a Monet as you would do for a Chevrolet,” former FBI senior investigator Robert Wittman, who founded the Art Crime Team, told “Power Players.”

During his 20 years with the FBI, Wittman retrieved more than $300 million in stolen art and cultural property from around the globe, ranging from paintings by Monet and Renoir to artifacts that included an original copy of the American Bill of Rights. Wittman now works as a private investigator in stolen art cases and recaps his action-packed career in his memoir, “Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures.”

While Wittman has done his fair share of secretive undercover work, he said many of the biggest breaks in recovering stolen art aren’t found in the shadows – but instead, hanging in plain sight.

It may take generations for a work of stolen art to resurface, Wittman said, but it’s often the case that they re-enter the market eventually. “It might take 20 years, but at some point someone who was holding them would pass away, it would get handed down, somebody would try to sell it,” Wittman said.

And whenever that happens, Wittman said, the FBI Art Team launches an investigation.

“Usually the hardest part to prove in these types of crimes is knowledge — that the person has knowledge that the piece is stolen,” Wittman said. “And I would be the one doing negotiations with the thieves to try to either surface the material or to prove that they knew it was stolen property.”

As one example, Wittman pointed to an undercover operation to recover three masterpieces, a Rembrandt self-portrait and two paintings by Renoir, stolen during an armed heist of the Swedish National Museum that amounted to over $40 million of stolen art.

“We recovered one of the Renoirs in Los Angeles as it was being offered for sale,” he said. “We identified the individuals who had the Rembrandt, and then we set up an undercover operation in Copenhagen, Denmark, where we actually did the sting for the operation.”

After courting the suspects over two weeks of meetings, Wittman said they brought the rare Rembrandt to him for viewing. “I offered them $250,000 for the painting itself,” he said, all of which is documented in surveillance camera footage of the sting. “Ultimately I called in the Danish SWAT team and they came in and saved the day.”

While the FBI Art Crime Team has played a role in many high-stakes international art recovery missions, Wittman said there are still many mysteries left to solve.

The greatest one to date, he said, is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum robbery of 1990, when thirteen objects of art with a collective value of half a billion dollars were smuggled out of the Boston museum.

“In the middle of the night two individuals went in dressed as Boston police officers. They tied up the two guards there and went around the museum and stole these pieces,” he said. “In this case, which is so strange, is nothing's ever shown up...not one piece has ever been seen.”

While there is a theory that a mega-billionaire is collecting the treasures for his personal collection, Wittman said such a prospect is as about as far-fetched as a James Bond movie.

“There was a famous James Bond movie called ‘Dr. No,’ and at one point, James Bond is walking through the caverns of Dr. No, and he looks over and he sees a painting, and it actually was a painting that was stolen...the year before in London," Wittman said.

"Ever since then, there is this theory that Dr. No is buying these stolen paintings and hiding them in the caverns, and I have to tell you, I never once saw that," he added. "So the chances of that happening now with the Gardner is very, very slim. I don't think they are in anybody's collection."

For more of the interview with Wittman, including the most creative way he’s seen someone steal a piece of art, watch this episode of “Power Players.”

ABC News’ Jordyn Phelps, Gary Westphalen, Melissa Young and Pat Glass contributed to this episode.