FBI agent Robert Wittman is on an undercover mission to retrieve a priceless Rembrandt stolen from Sweden's National Gallery. Finding the criminals is no easy task. It means descending into Europe's criminal underworld of violence, greed, and mystery in a high-stakes hunt to retrieve a priceless treasure.
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True Spies Episode 70: Operation Bullwinkle

Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? 

NARRATOR: This is True Spies Episode 70: Operation Bullwinkle.

ROBERT WITTMAN: December 23rd, late in the evening, around 5 pm, very close to Christmas. It was cold. It was dark. These three individuals went into the museum in Stockholm, the state museum, and they had guns.

NARRATOR: Loud voices cut through the hushed atmosphere of Sweden’s national gallery.

ROBERT WITTMAN: They put everybody on the floor. They made them go down and two of them stood guard while one of the other individuals went around the museum and they stole three artworks.

NARRATOR: Sirens wail into the cold evening outside but the robbers take their time. They aren’t scared.

ROBERT WITTMAN: They had set up two car bombs in the city. Those two car bombs actually stopped traffic leading to the peninsula where the museum is located.

NARRATOR: As fires blaze in the distance, the three armed men walk down the gallery’s grand entrance steps, and make their way to the water’s edge, just outside.

ROBERT WITTMAN: They had taken a speed boat and they hid the speed boat right there at the end of the pier where the museum was. They docked their boat and then made their getaway, meeting other accomplices in cars.

NARRATOR: And, just like that, three paintings disappear into the night.

ROBERT WITTMAN: Two by Renoir, and then the one Rembrandt. The total value of the heist that night was $42m. It was the largest art theft in Swedish national history.

NARRATOR: This is the story of those cherished artworks, spirited away from their rightful home and ushered into an underground world of violence, greed, and mystery. It is also the story of the man who found himself, thousands of miles from home, on the trail of a missing masterpiece.

ROBERT WITTMAN: I'm Robert Wittman. I'm a former FBI agent. 

NARRATOR: True spy aficionados might be getting that tingling feeling of deja vu right about now. Because in episode 15, we told another story about a Scandinavian art heist. But don’t worry, the similarities stop there. To step inside a crime like this one is to enter a game of cat and mouse on a global scale - one likely to frustrate even the most patient FBI agent. But for those who are willing to navigate the shadowy corridors of an international black market unimaginable bounty lies hidden behind each corner.

ROBERT WITTMAN: I was in the FBI from 1988 to 2008. During that period, I recovered more than $300m worth of stolen art and cultural property.

NARRATOR: Robert Wittman made a specialty out of exactly this kind of work, the legacy of which still echoes through the FBI’s hallowed halls.

ROBERT WITTMAN: In 2005, I was able to start and create the FBI's national art crime team, which still exists today.

NARRATOR: But before Robert Wittman carved out a niche for himself as a hunter of missing art, he was your typical young agent - hungry for a life he knew little about, except for what he’d seen on TV.

ROBERT WITTMAN: In 1988, when I started at the FBI, I think at the time probably the hottest television show on the networks was Miami Vice, which was a great show, showing narcotics detectives working in Miami. And maybe I had some visions of going to Miami and then working in Miami Harbor on a cigarette boat and doing the things that they were doing.

NARRATOR: But the FBI held other plans for Robert Wittman, fresh out of his training at Quantico.

ROBERT WITTMAN: I was stationed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which is a far, far cry from Miami.

NARRATOR: And, before he’d even arrived in Philadelphia, the wheels of fate were already turning.

ROBERT WITTMAN: Just a few weeks before I got there, there was an armed robbery at the Rodin Museum.

NARRATOR: A quick Art History 101. You might need it to keep up with the stakes in the world that Robert Wittman moves in. Auguste Rodin, a French artist who lived and worked at the tail end of the 19th century, is considered the godfather of modern sculpture.

ROBERT WITTMAN: Now the Rodin museum in Philly is the largest repository of Rodin sculptures in the world. And the piece that was stolen at gunpoint was a piece called The Man With the Broken Nose. 

NARRATOR: It’s one of his most famous works, originally designed as the full bust of a worker called Bebe. When the sculpture shattered - an accident of the extreme cold in the barn where Rodin worked - only the front portion of the bust remained. A haunting, captivating mask credited with changing the direction of Rodin’s work, and helping birth the impressionist movement. And more than a century later, on the other side of the Atlantic ocean, The Man with the Broken Nose would divert the course of history once again - albeit on a more intimate scale, this time - when it was stolen from a gallery in Philadelphia.

ROBERT WITTMAN: This individual went into the Rodin Museum, he had a small 25-caliber Raven pistol, and he ordered the guards to the floor. In fact, one of the guards said to him: "I don't believe that's a pistol." He thought it was a lighter.

NARRATOR: The answer to his wisecrack? A bullet fired into the wall, inches behind his head. The theft of The Man with the Broken Nose was one of Robert Wittman’s very first cases.

ROBERT WITTMAN: We investigated this case on and on. We finally got a tip on who had taken it. We did surveillance on this individual and ultimately we were able to prove that he was the one through photo identifications with the guards. And it became very important that he had shot this round into the wall. And the reason for that was because when we captured him and arrested him, he had the gun. So that became really concrete evidence that he was involved and, as a result, he was convicted.

NARRATOR: But, as Robert Wittman would come to learn over the years, in art crime investigations a conviction is only one small portion of the prize. It’s the hunt for the missing piece that can drive an agent to distraction.

ROBERT WITTMAN: We had to do a large search to try to find that mask. Ultimately we did find it wrapped up in brown paper, hidden under a hot water heater in his mother's home, in his basement. And after weeks of searching, we were able to come up with it and found the mask.

NARRATOR: Handing that mask back to the Rodin museum - seeing a favorite piece restored to its rightful home - it sparked something in Robert Wittman.

ROBERT WITTMAN: Recovering a piece of art like that is very different from, say, recovering a stolen car. If someone steals a Mercedes or a Cadillac, there's more of those and we can get them back. They're important. Everything's important, but recovering stolen history, to me, transcends the normal property crime situations that we usually see.

NARRATOR: Other similar cases quickly followed and, before he knew it, Robert found himself with a beat.

ROBERT WITTMAN: It became obvious that I had a knack for recovering artworks, antiquities. And at that point, I found a real interest in recovering these cultural properties and these types of items. The FBI obviously was happy about it, and so they sent me to art school.

NARRATOR: Of all the training grounds for the agents and operatives you’ve encountered on True Spies this one might stick out as particularly unlikely. But a year at the Barnes Foundation, a prestigious impressionist art gallery and school, provided Robert Wittman with the fundamentals he would need to move through the world of art crime.

ROBERT WITTMAN: So, going to art school for a year doesn't make anyone an art history expert. You don't get a Ph.D. in art by doing that. I was only going one day a week for about four hours. But, what it did do is, by going to the Barnes Foundation and learning to see the difference, learning how to see art, it made me comfortable in the market, made me comfortable in my background, so I could discuss it. And it gave me the basis for going undercover and working in the art world.

NARRATOR: And that is precisely what Robert Wittman did, time and time again - over a long, exciting career.

ROBERT WITTMAN: Ultimately I was involved in cases in more than 20 countries, working undercover in many of these countries, oftentimes overtly, depending on the situation and what was needed.

NARRATOR: Work of that kind comes with its own, unique set of difficulties.

ROBERT WITTMAN: When working undercover internationally, you have to always remember not to break the rules or break the laws of those countries that you're working in. Many times I had to go in as a civilian. Although the police departments knew that I was an FBI agent and I was sanctioned by the US government, I still wasn't a law enforcement officer in those countries. So, as a result, I was arrested in Spain. I was arrested in Denmark. I actually had to go before a judge in Peru because each of those situations involved me trying to buy stolen property which is an illegal act in those countries.

NARRATOR: In spite of those hiccups, Robert Wittman’s reputation as someone who could hunt down long-missing artworks grew and grew, and the cases that landed on his desk took on increasingly mythical proportions. He moved in the realms of the priceless.

ROBERT WITTMAN: People ask me all the time: "What was the most valuable item you ever recovered?” And I always have to tell them one of the pieces I recovered over the years was a United States Civil War battle flag. That battle flag was carried by the 12th regiment Corps d’Afrique, which was an African-American regiment that was in a battle of Port Hudson. I believe seven people were shot out from under carrying that flag. At that time, flags were very important for the lines so that people knew what side of the battlefield they were on.

NARRATOR: How do you put a number on an item like that? A genuine piece of history, central to the story of America.

ROBERT WITTMAN: It had been stolen from the United States Army and it was being offered for about $30,000. And I went undercover there to buy it back. It was only valued at $30,000, financially, but the cultural history that it represented was priceless. It's the first time in US history when a black regiment was fighting for their freedom and the freedom of all people from there on out. And so, it just shows that cultural history was just as important as the market value. On the other hand, one of the most interesting cases I was involved in was the theft of a Rembrandt self-portrait. Again, an invaluable piece of priceless history, 35m, but no more important than the battle flag taken from the 12th regiment, Corps d’Afrique.

NARRATOR: The $35m Rembrandt that Bob Wittman is referring to is the one that was peeled from the walls of Sweden’s national museum, on that cold night in December 2000 - and whisked away by speedboat - as frustrated police vehicles found themselves stuck in traffic. In many ways, it had been the perfect heist.

ROBERT WITTMAN: But they made one big mistake. When they got off of the boat, they were getting onto the pier after they made their getaway and a fisherman saw them do it. The fisherman was observant. He wrote down the identification numbers on the boat these guys were on.

NARRATOR: Cut to the next morning, when news of a $42m heist reaches the front pages of Stockholm’s newspapers.

ROBERT WITTMAN: This fisherman called the Stockholm police and said: “I saw three individuals get off of this boat." Well, at that point, the Stockholm police had a good lead. So they went back and they spoke to the original owner of the boat and, yes, he had sold it and, believe it or not, these guys had used a credit card to pay for that boat.

NARRATOR: Surely the architects of such a meticulously planned heist couldn’t have been so sloppy? But it appeared the Swedes were in luck.

ROBERT WITTMAN: They were able to identify these individuals who had used a credit card and, within a year, they had made arrests on the heist. They actually arrested, I believe, 10 people that they believe were all involved in this criminal activity and put them on trial. Seven of them were convicted and got a number of years in prison.

NARRATOR: Bingo - that rarest of things: an open and shut case. And the bad guys - well, most of them anyway - locked up in jail. But what about the stolen paintings? The two Renoirs and that Rembrandt self-portrait?

ROBERT WITTMAN: They did recover one of the Renoir paintings, one of the $4m Renoirs that was taken. But at that point, the whole case went cold.

NARRATOR: It’s the sad reality with a lot of cases like this one. A conviction doesn’t necessarily mean recovery; by that time the painting has probably changed hands a dozen times over. It might be years before whispers of the stolen piece reach the market. In the case of the Stockholm heist, it was five years later that Robert Wittman’s phone rang, 4,000 miles from the scene of the crime, in Philadelphia.

ROBERT WITTMAN: I got a call from one of the agents on the National Art Crime Team for the FBI. I was in Philadelphia and the agent was in Los Angeles, and he asked me, did I know anything about a stolen Renoir from Stockholm?

NARRATOR: Robert Wittman had, of course, followed the story with interest from a distance, but why was he hearing about it again now, five years after the fact?

ROBERT WITTMAN: Here's the situation. They had an investigation going on in Los Angeles of a Bulgarian drug dealer. This Bulgarian drug dealer was named Boris, and Boris was out trying to peddle the Renoir as well as his drugs. So I said to Chris: "Listen, there are lots of drug cases out there. If we can get this Renoir back, it would be great to recover it for the country of Sweden, and also to start off with the Art Crime Team,” since we had just started the team.

NARRATOR: Recovering a world-famous artwork would be a wonderful victory for Robert Wittman’s fledgling career. He waited eagerly for an update from Chris in L.A.

ROBERT WITTMAN: About two weeks later, he called me back. He said: "Good news. We were doing surveillance on Boris. He was talking about moving that Renoir." And so, they followed him that Saturday afternoon. He went to a pawn shop on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles and the Renoir was hidden in a safe inside the pawnshop. He put it in the trunk of his car. The agents, at that point, asked him for information about what was in the trunk and he allowed them to open it. And, of course, they recovered the painting.

NARRATOR: The agents in L.A. took the painting to the Getty Museum and had it verified. It was the missing Renoir from the Stockholm heist.

ROBERT WITTMAN: When Chris told me that, I was jubilant for him. I was very happy. They got it back. And I asked him, I said: "What are you going to do next? What about the Rembrandt? Any information about that?”

NARRATOR: Chris promised to bring it up when he next questioned the Bulgarian drug dealer.

ROBERT WITTMAN: So they went back and they talked to Boris and they found out that Boris did know where the Rembrandt was. It was still in Sweden. More importantly, Boris knew who had it. And, because of the extensive drug charges that he would be facing, he was willing to work with us to create an undercover operation, to try to recover the Rembrandt.

NARRATOR: Robert Wittman found himself, once again, on the trail of a missing masterpiece. 

ROBERT WITTMAN: Bullwinkle was the name of the operation. The reason we did that was because there was a famous cartoon called Rocky and Bullwinkle and Bullwinkle is a moose. Rocky's a squirrel. But they have these villains in that cartoon called Natasha and Boris. So we called it Operation Bullwinkle because we had Boris the Bulgarian. 

NARRATOR: Robert’s role in Operation Bullwinkle would be to go undercover to secure the lost Rembrandt.

ROBERT WITTMAN: My persona, in that case, was to be the professor, so to speak, the art professor who would authenticate the painting and then actually do the deal for a group of Eastern European organized criminals that we were representing.

NARRATOR: By his side in the operation would be Boris. The Bulgarian drug dealer would introduce Robert to the vendors, vouch for him. For them to pull it off, the two would need to be comfortable with one another. So Robert flew to L.A. to meet his reluctant partner.

ROBERT WITTMAN: Boris was an interesting character. He was a Bulgarian by birth but had lived in Sweden, which is why he knew these people. He had lived for quite a while in Los Angeles and was living basically by his wits. At that point, he was in his late ‘50s, early ‘60s, and he just kind of went from place to place and from crime to crime.

NARRATOR: But Boris’s murky history didn’t trouble Robert. In fact, it made him more certain he could trust him.

ROBERT WITTMAN: I was comfortable with him because I knew he was trying to help himself. If Boris was trying to help someone else, I wouldn't believe in it, but because he was trying to work off a long 10- year drug sentence in Los Angeles, I was comfortable because he knew that everything he was doing was in his own best interest. And, ultimately, individuals like Boris are only interested in their own self-interest.

NARRATOR: And if there were any doubt about Boris’s access to the group of criminals selling the Rembrandt - well, a glimpse at his family tree took care of that for Robert.

ROBERT WITTMAN: The other thing that’s really interesting is that Boris, our informant, knew these criminals. The reason he knew them was [because] one of them was his actual son. And so here's a situation where, you know, that self-interest overcame everything here. He is trying to work off time for himself and is totally willing to give up his own son with an armed robbery charge.

NARRATOR: In the upside-down land of undercover stings, Boris was exactly the kind of man Robert wanted by his side. With his mind at ease, they moved ahead with Operation Bullwinkle. The plan was for Robert and Boris to fly to Stockholm to meet with the vendors of the stolen Rembrandt. There, Robert would authenticate the painting, the bad guys would be arrested, and the Rembrandt would be returned to its home in Stockholm’s National Museum. Simple, no? But in this world, things rarely run smoothly.

ROBERT WITTMAN: The problem was that Boris had an arrest warrant in Stockholm, and the Swedish national police wouldn't let him into the country. If they did, he would be arrested. And that wasn't acceptable to us. So that's why we decided to do the operations in Copenhagen, Denmark.

NARRATOR: Another national police force enters the fray - bringing with it a new set of characters, a new set of rules.

ROBERT WITTMAN: So, at this point, you have three countries involved in this case. You have Sweden, with the Swedish National Police, Denmark, with the Danish National Police, and the Copenhagen City Police, and the FBI for the United States all working together. That's why this case is so interesting. I really can't think of another piece of property - let's face it, a painting is a property item. It's not narcotics, it's not public corruption. It's property. I can't think of another piece of property that three countries would put the resources in and work into trying to recover.

NARRATOR: In the midst of a web of international concerns, Robert and Boris flew to Copenhagen to meet with the three criminals who claimed to hold the Rembrandt.

ROBERT WITTMAN: And these, by the way, were the three who were acquitted in 2001. In that group of 10 that were arrested, seven were arrested and convicted at that time, and these three were acquitted.

NARRATOR: Three of a group of 10 who had planted car bombs around Stockholm, had marched into an art gallery armed with pistols and a submachine gun, and brazenly taken a fortune in cherished art as if it belonged to them. What exactly goes through an agent’s head as he prepares to come face to face with men like that? 

ROBERT WITTMAN: By that point, I had done undercover operations in Spain, in Peru, in Ecuador - and this was just another situation to go in and do my job. Now, the fact that they had done armed robberies, I guess, made me more interested, so to speak, in my own safety, but I never carried a gun undercover.

NARRATOR: Which, for a law enforcement officer, wrapped up in negotiations with a demonstrably violent group of criminals, might seem counterintuitive. But Robert had his reasons.

ROBERT WITTMAN: I always thought anytime I carried a weapon that would raise the threat level. In other words, if I had a gun, the bad guys had to have a gun. So it was always a situation where if I'm not armed and I'm not a threat, then they're not going to be as nervous. They won't have weapons themselves. And that way we worked together.

NARRATOR: And the truth is, Robert knew that a gun was unlikely to save him even if things did go wrong.

ROBERT WITTMAN: I used to teach undercover operations at the FBI academy in Quantico, Virginia. And I would tell new agents who were interested in working undercover that your backup team would definitely be there in time to avenge you, but they probably wouldn't be there in time to save you. So I'd rather be saved than avenged. And the best way to do that is to think your way out of any situation, not fight your way, or shoot your way out.

NARRATOR: With that philosophy at the forefront of his mind, Operation Bullwinkle began to pick up pace. Robert was darting back and forth between Stockholm and Copenhagen, liaising with both police forces on surveillance of the criminals, preparing for the sting that would unfold when the Rembrandt was finally delivered to his hands. At the same time, he and Boris were negotiating over the price of the Rembrandt from a hotel in the Danish capital.

ROBERT WITTMAN: We offered $250,000. And we said: "That's all our buyers would pay."

NARRATOR: A quarter of a million dollars for a painting valued at $32m - surely, the FBI agent had to be kidding. But Robert arrived at that bargain-basement price from a true understanding of the market.

ROBERT WITTMAN: By 2005, they had the painting for five years. It was hidden in a closet, wrapped in a velvet blanket and there's been no money, no monetization at all, of that whole caper. Both Renoirs were recovered. There was no money paid for them. Finally, all they had left was the Rembrandt. So $250,000 in cash was a good deal for something they paid zero for. It was all profit. Of course, it was profit with a number of people in prison as well. So they were paying with time, but that was a profit for them. So, by this point, they wanted anything they could get for it. And $250,000 was what it was.

NARRATOR: If anything - the discount rate made the criminals more likely to trust him. This was someone who understood the complexity of the black market. But still, they were cagey, seemingly reluctant to get the deal over the line.

ROBERT WITTMAN: For two weeks we negotiated almost nonstop, back and forth, trying to get this deal done. 

NARRATOR: Finally, in that hotel room in Copenhagen, Robert offered an ultimatum.

ROBERT WITTMAN: I told them: "Look, The Eastern European mob group is getting upset. They want to get this done. And if they don't agree to this within the next two or three days, it's off, we're going to go away.”

NARRATOR: And, just like that, the thieves agreed to the price. That night, they left Copenhagen, promising to return the following day with the Rembrandt in tow. A Danish SWAT team was installed in the room next door. Operation Bullwinkle was entering its final act.

ROBERT WITTMAN: The next morning, I got a call from the Danish National Police. They said they had gotten information from the Swedes that these individuals have been going back and forth to different houses at night. And, finally, they were back on the train that morning and they were coming back down to Copenhagen. One of them was carrying an object in a bag. It was a rectangular piece about the size of the painting in a shopping bag. So they asked - the Swedish National Police asked - “Should we arrest them?”

NARRATOR: The Swedes, anxiously watching their own national treasure, approach the Danish border, saw an opportunity to neatly wrap up the case and recover the masterpiece before anyone in Denmark even got involved.

ROBERT WITTMAN: I can tell you from firsthand experience that if a painting from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, was stolen, the NYPD would probably not let it go to Canada.

NARRATOR: Even so, something about the whole setup felt wrong to Robert. He wanted to see the sting through. He told the Swedish police to let the painting go.

ROBERT WITTMAN: I said: "Let it go on. Let it happen. Let him bring the piece to us. Let's stick to the plan. And I give them 100 percent credit. They did that. They actually allowed the object to come from Sweden into Denmark. 

NARRATOR: Game on. As Robert waited for the train to reach Copenhagen, he found himself in a familiar headspace.

ROBERT WITTMAN: Psychologically working undercover, the period where you're leading up to it, the last few moments, maybe the hour before you start, that's the time when you really start to think about what it is you're going to do. Up until then, it's all the preparations, the situations, the set-ups, the backup teams, everything else that you're thinking about. But at that last hour, it's just you and your thoughts.

NARRATOR: And in Copenhagen, as a Danish SWAT team busied themselves in the room next door, and Robert prepared to go face to face with a group of violent thieves, he did the one thing he knew would help to keep things in perspective. It was what he always did when the stakes were high.

ROBERT WITTMAN: And what I always did was, I would call home. I would call home and just have a small conversation with my wife saying: "What's going on? How are the kids doing?” My wife, Donna, she always knew, when I made that call, I was getting ready to go in. She would just tell me what was happening. And that would make me realize that there's a much bigger world here than any case could ever be. And that was more important - to get home in one piece to them than it would be for anything else.

NARRATOR: In the hotel room in Denmark, Robert Wittman hung up the phone and readied himself. His targets were nearly returned.

ROBERT WITTMAN: Once they reached Copenhagen, The three guys got off the train. The Swedes backed off and the Danish National Police then picked up the surveillance. All three came back to my hotel. I was at the Scandic Hotel, only a few blocks from the main train station in Copenhagen. The person with the bag and the rectangular object stayed outside, on the corner. The other two individuals came back up to my room. They said they wanted to see the money.

NARRATOR: Things were beginning to heat up - to move at pace - but Robert had a protocol to follow.

ROBERT WITTMAN: I never kept the money in the room. And the reason for that is that I didn't want to be robbed. I told them that if they stole the money from me, the mob group would kill me. So I needed to be sure that everybody was safe. So I checked them for weapons. They had no weapons, and I made a phone call and I had the briefcase brought into the room, at which point $250,000 in cash was in the briefcase.

NARRATOR: Robert watched on as the two men tipped the contents of the briefcase onto the hotel bed. 

ROBERT WITTMAN: They went through every stack of $100 bills to make sure they were real. So I said: "Okay, you've seen the money, you know what's going on. Where's the painting?” They told me that they would go get it.

NARRATOR: The men left the room. They would need only to travel as far as the hotel lobby’s doors, retrieve the painting from their man on the street, and return to the room. Robert could practically smell victory.

ROBERT WITTMAN: Well, I’m standing there, I'm waiting, okay, for about maybe five, seven minutes. They had just left. Around 10 minutes into it, I get a call on the hotel phone. It's the Danish National Police. And they asked me: "What did you say to them? Did you say something wrong?”

NARRATOR: Surveillance had picked up all three men, hightailing it away from the hotel. Something must have gone wrong. The Danish police wanted to act now, while they still could.

ROBERT WITTMAN: I said: "No, don't arrest them. Wait until they get back on the train. If they get back onto the train. Then stop them on the trains and find out what's going on.”

NARRATOR: Robert spent the next 10 minutes going over all that had happened in the hotel room. What had gone wrong? The masterpiece was in danger of slipping from his grasp.

ROBERT WITTMAN: Finally I got a callback. It’s the Danish police again. They say: "Everything’s okay." What they had done was, they had gone to another hotel because, the night before, a fourth individual had come down by himself. He was at that hotel, and he had the painting, so the person that was carrying the bag with the rectangular object, that was a decoy. Had we done anything, had we stopped them on the train, or had we stopped them on the street after they ran away, they would have known we were the police.

NARRATOR: Robert breathed a sigh of relief. The entire case had nearly been lost but his instinct had kept the painting in play.

ROBERT WITTMAN: And so, at that point, they had gotten the painting. The three guys were coming back to my hotel room. They came back in again, we looked for any kind of weapons. They had no weapons. The money was still in the room. So we unwrapped the covering off of the painting, took a look at it.

NARRATOR: This, finally, was the moment that Robert had been waiting for. A self-portrait, painted on copper, nearly four centuries ago. It was just a tiny thing really - only five by six inches - and yet it had taken on such enormous proportions in his mind, had come to mean so much to the nations who tirelessly hunted it down. But, even now, with so much history in the palm of his hand, he had to be sure.

ROBERT WITTMAN: At that point, I wanted to authenticate it. The reason was to make sure it was the right painting. I'm not an authenticator of Rembrandts, but I had great photographs from the museum of the front and back of the painting. Now, on the back of the painting on the stretcher, there were four screws that held the painting into the frame. And I looked at the screws to see how they were turned. And they were in the exact same positions as the photographs. So I knew they'd never taken this painting out of the frame. I even said to them: "Hey, you never took it out. Did you take it out of the frame?” And they looked at me with shock. And they said: "Of course not, it's a Rembrandt.”

NARRATOR: Which was all that Robert Wittman needed to know. 

ROBERT WITTMAN: I said: "Great. It looks real to me." So all I needed to do at that point was to give a signal. And the signal was for me to say very, very slowly that this is a done deal.

NARRATOR: The SWAT team was coiled in the very next room ready to spring into action.

ROBERT WITTMAN: I said: "This is a done deal." And I expected the Danish police to come breaking in the door. They were going to grab the painting. They would grab these individuals and arrest them all and they would save me and pull me out of the room and everything would go well. Well, nothing happened.

NARRATOR: What was going on? Had the SWAT team missed their cue?

ROBERT WITTMAN: Finally, I said: “This is a done deal.” Twice. Again, nothing happened. Then I saw that they were trying to open the door. I saw the handle moving.

NARRATOR: But the door remained locked. The keycard wasn’t working. 

ROBERT WITTMAN: I was in the bathroom at that point, which is a great place to hide in these kinds of takedowns because you can always crawl into the tub if they start shooting it out, you know? At least you have some cover. 

NARRATOR: The door handle rattled again and Robert locked eyes with one of the criminals in the room. On his face, puzzlement, then recognition. Robert made a break from his spot in the bathroom.

ROBERT WITTMAN: I reached over to open the door for them so they could run in. And I took the painting and ran down the hall.

NARRATOR: In the hotel room behind him arrests were being made. And, for the first time, the gravity of what had just taken place began to dawn on Robert Wittman.

ROBERT WITTMAN: It was an amazing feeling. It's a Eureka moment that you finally have this piece that you've been chasing for months and months. Anytime you get a case like that, it's like having a tiger by the tail. You don't know where it's going to take you. You just grab on. You hold on tightly, and you let that thing take you anywhere it's going to go. And in the end, you cage the tiger.

NARRATOR: You can imagine what comes after that Eureka moment. Press conferences with Swedish, Danish, and US police. Photo ops with the recovered Rembrandt. Headlines in newspapers around the world. An agent like Robert Wittman can’t have much to do with any of that, lest his cover be blown.

ROBERT WITTMAN: As an undercover operative, I was never in the newspapers. Really, the first time I was photographed for a newspaper was in 2010 believe it or not, two years after I retired. I'd written my memoir, called Priceless and, as the book came out the first day, The New York Times did a feature on it. That was pretty much the end of my undercover career.

NARRATOR: It may have been the end of his career, but he left some legacy behind. You can read about it all in Priceless and his subsequent book The Devil’s Diary. These days, Robert Wittman would be the first to admit there’s a certain thrill in knowing the role that he has played in the trajectory of some of the world’s most cherished art.

ROBERT WITTMAN: Once you get involved in these cases you feel a kind of kinship - and it's not ownership, but a kinship - with the artworks you recover.

NARRATOR: Sometimes he’ll still go to the Rodin museum in Philadelphia, to see The Man with the Broken Nose, that first sculpture that sent him careening deep into the world of hidden masterpieces.

ROBERT WITTMAN: People are looking at it, and you just had a small portion of its history, and that's all you can think of. People don't know, they don't know who you are and what you did but you know yourself and that's all that matters.

NARRATOR: I’m Vanessa Kirby. Join us next week for another brush with True Spies.  We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former Head of Training at British Intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.

Guest Bio

Former FBI agent Robert Wittman founded the FBI’s National Art Crime Team in 2005, coinciding with the US invasion of Iraq and the looting of the National Museum in Baghdad. Wittman spent much of his FBI career working on art thefts, frauds, forgeries, and fakes. He now runs a security and recovery firm dealing with art and cultural artifacts.

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