Robert Wittman, retired FBI agent and founder of the bureau’s National Art Crime Team, will be lecturing at the Fort Mason Center Festival Pavilion at 2:30 p.m. Friday as part of the San Francisco Fall Antiques Show. The “FBI’s Real Indiana Jones” will provide first-hand accounts from his 20-year, art-recovering career as well as the importance of cultural property protection.
How do you feel about being labeled as the FBI’s “real Indiana Jones”?
I think it’s great because it creates interest in the whole problem of cultural-property protection. I think that what happens sometimes is that we lose sight of the fact that these valuable pieces are not just artworks, but they’re all actual icons of humanity. ... By the way, I didn’t make that [name] up.
Can you tell us a case that stands out for you?
One of the most interesting things in my career was a case involving one of the original copies of the Bill of Rights. In 1865, the copy that went to North Carolina was stolen by a Union trooper. In 2003, it was being auctioned at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. We initiated an undercover case and I was acting as a dot-com millionaire. We had them bring it to us and we were able to seize it. What was so neat about it was that as an FBI agent, I swore to uphold the Constitution. I never thought I’d be holding it in my hand. At the time, it was worth about $30 million.
Is there a message you want to send to art thieves?
The thing is, it’s not the stealing, it’s the selling. In the end, they all come back to market. That’s how we recover them. I would try to tell art thieves, “don’t steal this stuff” ... because we’re gonna get ’em.