Museum Security Network

Turf war may have ruined Gardner heist lead

Turf war may have ruined Gardner heist leadEx-agent says FBI was on right trail

By Stephen Kurkjian, Globe Correspondent  |  April 4, 2010
The FBI was on the trail of recovering the principal masterpiecesstolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum from a criminal gangin Corsica two years ago only to have its efforts dashed, in partbecause of bureaucratic infighting among federal agents andsupervisors.
That is the conclusion of a nonfiction book written by a now-retiredFBI special agent who posed undercover in 2006 and 2007 as a wealthyart collector interested in purchasing several of the paintingsthrough two Frenchmen who had alleged ties to the Corsican mobsters.The French intermediaries said they could deliver the stolen Vermeer,valued at more than $100 million, and at least one of the two largeRembrandts that were taken. They were among the 13 pieces, now valuedat $500 million, stolen in what is considered the largest art theft inhistory.
As detailed in his soon-to-be released book, “Priceless: How I WentUndercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures,’’ Robert K. Wittmansays he believed from French wiretaps and his covert dealings with thetwo French intermediaries that the Corsican mob did have control ofthe stolen artwork. A special agent for 20 years, Wittman establishedthe FBI’s Art Theft unit and is credited with recoveries of hundredsof millions of dollars of art and antiquities during his ca reer, manyof which he recounts in his book, along with his experiences on theGardner case.
If true, the disclosures provide the first real clues as to whathappened to the 11 paintings and drawings, plus an ancient Chinesevase and a finial, stolen out of the Gardner Museum on March 18, 1990.
Wittman, who retired from the FBI and now works as a private securityconsultant, could not be reached for comment. A spokeswoman for hispublisher, Crown Publishers in New York, said he would not be givinginterviews until the book goes on sale in June. As recently as a monthago, FBI agents who have spent the last 20 years investigating thethefts were quoted as saying that they have never received “proof oflife’’ evidence from any of the tipsters that they had possession oraccess to the stolen goods.
The FBI, according to officials, is reviewing Wittman’s manuscript forpossible disclosure of secrets that could be damaging to ongoinginvestigations or national security. Special Agent Gail A.Marcinkiewicz, spokeswoman for the Boston office of the FBI, declinedto respond to questions on the substance of the Corsican investigation— tagged Operation Masterpiece by the FBI — or Wittman’s criticisms ofthe FBI’s overall handling of the inquiry. Instead, in a statementFriday, she said: “Per DOJ [ Department of Justice] policy, the FBIdoes not comment on any ongoing, pending investigations. The FBIremains dedicated and committed to this investigation with theultimate goal being the recovery and return of the stolen artwork tothe Gardner Museum.’’
Until now, the FBI has attributed that failure to the perpetrators’continued fear of prosecution, despite repeated pledges by federalauthorities that they would not be charged if they returned the stolenitems in good condition. They would also be eligible to collect the $5million reward being offered by the museum for the return of thepaintings and other art pieces.
However, Wittman contends that the lead he worked on beginning in late2006 — which he describes as the first credible tip received by theFBI — was sabotaged by the reluctance of FBI officials to overrule theFBI supervisory agent on the Gardner investigation who refused toallow Wittman to make his own decisions on the Corsican case.
Instead, the supervisor, who is only identified in the book as“Fred,’’ micromanaged Wittman’s interactions with the two Frenchintermediaries even though he was unfamiliar with overseeing anundercover operation. At one point, Wittman writes, Fred tried to getWittman thrown off the case by sending an official memorandum to FBIchiefs in Washington questioning whether Wittman was trying to delaycompleting the investigation until retiring so he could win the $5million reward as a private citizen.
In addition, Wittman writes, Fred — who had never before traveled to aforeign country on official business — was quick to offend hiscounterparts in French law enforcement on the investigation, seekingto assert the FBI’s control of the case even though many of thedealings were to take place inside France.
Despite his pleas, Wittman writes, FBI officials refused to wrestcontrol of the investigation from Fred because of the historicreluctance of those at FBI headquarters to overrule the decisions ofthe agency’s local supervisors. French authorities also weakened thethrust of the investigation by mandating that a French intelligenceofficer work undercover with Wittman and by refusing at one key pointto allow one of the two intermediaries to enter France for a meetingbecause he was a fugitive wanted in France on another crime.
“Bureaucracies and turf fighting on both sides of the Atlantic haddestroyed the best chance in a decade to rescue the Gardnerpaintings,’’ Wittman writes. “We’d blown an opportunity to infiltratea major art crime ring in France, a loose network of mobsters holdingas many as 70 stolen masterpieces.’’
Despite his criticisms of the investigation, the key question thatemerges from Wittman’s book is whether the lead was a legitimate one.Did the French intermediaries — a fugitive accountant named LaurenzCogniat and his associate, identified only as Sunny — have real tieswith Corsican mobsters and did those mobsters have control of thepaintings? Or was the pair just trying to pull a scam on Wittman, whohad told them that he was able to put up millions to buy the Gardnerpaintings?
Wittman says he believed he was on track to recover the Gardnerpaintings after French police told him that they had spotted Sunnymeeting with Corsican mobsters in Marseilles and Sunny had been heardon wiretaps speaking of “frames for Bob.’’ Wittman’s undercover namewas Bob Clay.
But while the three met repeatedly over a two-year period in France,Spain, and in the United States, Wittman had trouble focusing theintermediaries’ attention on closing the deal for the Gardnerpaintings. Wittman dropped out of the case in early 2008 when Sunnyapproached him to see whether he was interested in buying fourpaintings that had just been stolen from a museum in Nice. Wittmanturned the lead over to another FBI undercover agent. Sunny wassubsequently arrested in the deal, ending Wittman’s hopes of using himas a conduit for recovering the Gardner paintings.
Wittman ends his book recounting a wistful conversation he had withPierre Tabel, then the chief of France’s National Art Crime Squad,about their efforts over the previous two years to recover the Gardnerpaintings.
“Pierre,’’ Wittman asks him, “do you think we had a chance? For thepaintings?’’
“Absolutement,’’ Tabel responded. “We have a good idea who has them.We know to whom Sunny was speaking. But now that we arrest Sunny . . .the case is gone. We will not have this chance again for many years.’’
Stephen Kurkjian can be reached at kurkjian@globe.com.

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