Reality’s would-be debonair art thieves

Have you seen Entrapment? Or The Thomas Crown Affair? Perhaps To Catch a Thief, starring Cary Grant…? When people think of art crime, they imagine stories like these. Noah Charney best summarised this worldwide misconception in his TedxCelje Talk, uploaded to YouTube on the 27th of December 2012.

“[A common misconception is that art crimes are undertaken by] …individual, non-violent thieves stealing works of art form famous museums… They may have gentlemanly or even ideological motivations behind the theft. People tend to… assume that the people buying these works of art are evil Bavarian counts with exciting facial hair living in castles in the middle of Europe and cackling maniacally over their collection of stolen art. There have been a few cases that match this description but they’re such a small number relative to the number of art crimes that happen every year that it’s really negligible”.

In truth, the beautiful, sophisticated, wealthy Hollywood art thieves are nothing like the would-be debonair faced in reality…

Figure 1: still from the Thomas Crown Affair

The types of museum heists include insider thefts, armed robberies and burglaries. Insider thefts make up an incredible 90% of art thefts committed in the USA today. These are people who have special access such as guards, curators, experts, maintenance people. The other two categories are considered as opportunity thefts.

Robert Wittman recounted three experiences – I’ve overviewed them, in short, below. Detailed summaries of these cases, along with other fantastical experiences, can be found in Wittman’s book Priceless – which comes highly recommended.

Three pickers concoct a very, very, very cunning plan

Pennsbury Manor is the colonial estate of William Penn, founder and proprietor of the Colony of Pennsylvania. According to Wittman, Penn was in residence there from 1683 – 1700. This historic home, grounds and interior artefacts are owned and preserved by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in association with The Pennsbury Society.

Three individuals, locals to the area and friends growing up, embarked on the united journey to become glorified “pickers”. According to Wittman, these three “weren’t at all like the History Channel’s American Pickers“. They mostly plucked bits of trash; things they found in garbage cans that could be sold at the Pennsylvanian antique auction held on Tuesdays. They scraped together a few dollars every month. But from such humble origins, greed got the better of them.

One rainy, cold evening, riding around in their car, the three stooges (feeling brazen after having consumed several beers), came up with what Blackadder’s Bladrick would describe as a “very, very, very cunning plan”: they were going to rob Pennsbury Manor. They ambled up to the front door, kicked it in (leaving behind a large muddy footprint), and ransacked the estate in just under 15 minutes – carrying off about 40 pieces of loot in great big plastic bags.

The footprint helped determine that not only was this not an inside job, but it was painfully unsophisticated. Robert Wittman, the State Police and FBI interviewed everybody but came up with no leads. “So, we did what police do… we waited for a break in the case”. Six weeks after the heist took place, one of the culprit’s was busted for a DUI. The young trooper who pulled him over discovered, quite by chance, a stolen safe in the backseat of his car – a safe that had been ransacked from a nearby pizza parlour just hours beforehand. Arrested and taken into police custody, very little time passed before our first little picker called his attorney to negotiate a plea deal – dubbing in his buddies and pointing Robert Wittman & co. towards the stolen loot.

Unfortunately, the ignorant accomplice who’d assisted the three thieves in hiding the Pennsbury Manor artefacts had dumped everything into the Delaware river soon after the theft took place.  Our first picker, panicking after reading about the case in several newspapers, deduced the loot “too hot” for reselling and ordered the goods be drowned pronto. What with Delaware being a tidal river, the police dive team weren’t able to salvage everything. Wittman ended this tale with a woeful remark that hit home for me. I’ve recorded it below as I found his words extremely tender. [About the jewellery casket owned by William Penn’s wife.]

“That piece was saved for 300 years by all of our forefathers… as a piece of cultural heritage for our country, for our nation; and because of the stupidity of art theft, it is now gone.”

This story was a changing point in the history of art crime persecutions. These pickers were the first people in US history to be charged with the Theft of Major Artwork in the federal system, making this case the first time this statute had ever been applied in reality. The pickers were convicted, they appealed, but the statute was upheld – it worked.

David B. Birney, Andrew A. Humphreys and General G. Meade

This case begins with three swords, three generals and one slightly flummoxed curator. The objects, owned by Civil War union generals David B. Birney, Andrew A. Humphreys and General G. Meade, were treasures of the Philadelphian Historic Society collection. You see, all three men were present at battle of Gettysburg; a battle that shaped the future of the States and essentially “turned the tide” of history, as Wittman described, “by establishing a unified country of states” and thus establishing the US of A. For their efforts Birney, Humphreys and Meade were gifted the most exquisite presentation swords, then valued at a total of $750, 000.

I enjoyed hearing about the lengths that 1, 000 Philadelphian townsfolk went to creating Mead’s sword, presented to the general after the battle of Gettysburg. Each citizen, thankful for Meade’s ability to “turn back the hordes of rebel soldiers who were menacing Philadelphia” donated a dollar to Tiffanies who forged the sword in all its delicate splendour. “It’s high art, and was worth at least $350, 000 at the time”. So, when our slightly flummoxed curator did a cursory check of the storage department and found all three precious artefacts gone, she wasted no time in calling to report their missing.

125 people were interviewed – bar one. “Ernie the maintenance man”, had a doctor’s appointment. However, he could not come more highly recommend: Ernest Medford was the trusted 20-year-loyal compatriot and all-round “good guy” of the PHS…

Or was he?

At that time, with nothing to go on, Wittman and his team decided to do some market research. As fate would have it, one conversation with an author at a Civil War show in Richmond, Virginia, gave them their first real clue. This man had written the paperback book Swords from the Public Collections in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which included fine details of all the missing items as well as a fourth weapon from the PHS collection – an 1840s American War relic. Interestingly, the author pointed out, this sword had recently up in conversation with a local dealer friend of his. This friend had alerted our author to the news that the fourth sword, along with a confederate pistol, were in the hands of a man named George Csizmazia, who was busily searching for parts.

Why was a PHS sword, supposedly in the PHS collection, in the hands of a private owner? Hm. Food for thought. The FBI tracked Csizmazia, an electrician, to his place of work. Sitting awkwardly around the office countertop, an unbelievably fortuitous thing happened. With no agenda, the conversation went something like this… (picture a black and white silent film with intertitles).

RW: [leaning in] “We are here to talk to you about the swords.”

GC: [wide-eyed] “Ernie told you, didn’t he?”

RW: [incredulous, but remaining cool] “Of course, why would we be here if Ernie Medford didn’t say anything.”

GC: [sigh] “Yeah, I got the swords.”

RW: [OMG] “Great, take us there.”  

The group headed up to George Csizmazia’s home and found, behind a five-lock, bolted door, the world’s finest collection of Civil War artefacts. Together, over a span of seven years, George Csizmazia and Ernest Medfordhad amassed $2.2 million worth of precious artefacts. The stolen objects included George Washington’s white ivory tea caddy, which he had on him at Valley Forge during the Revolutionary War; the Polar Explorer Elisha Kent Kane’s telescope, which was on him when he discovered the pathway through the artic sea; and a rifle that once belonged to John Brown – present at the Brown’s raid against slavery in 1860. The duo were convicted of Theft of Major Artwork and were sentenced consecutive four-year prison sentences. To date, this is the largest ever recovery of US artefacts at one time.

Operation Bullwinkel

Before I get stuck into relaying this tale… if you are based in the UK you can watch Wittman’s episode on Stolen: Catching Art Thieves (a TV show on BBC2) by clicking here. The episode tracks the following case of the stolen Rembrandt self-portrait, valued at $35 million.

Created in 1630 at 24 years old, Rembrandt’s oil on copper self-portrait is a precious thing – embedded with minute gold flecks. This painting is the property of the Swedish National Museum, which experienced utter turmoil at the turn of the century when three individuals with machine pistols arrived at the museum’s front steps on a dark, cold December 22nd.  They held staff and visitors at gunpoint, took what they wanted, and walked out. When the chaos had simmered down, three artworks were found to be missing: two Renoirs and one Rembrandt. A total of $42 million dollars, making this the largest single art heist in Swedish National History.

Modus operandi: the trio set off two car bombs leading to museum, and left a stream of tack strips to burst the tyres of any vehicle that made it past the first distraction. They staged their getaway on a boat, exiting at a small harbour. Fortunately this harbour was frequented by a fisherman who had the good sense to report their disembark to police. They traced the boat back to its original owner and, well, there were clearly no slick Pierce Brosnans on this team because the crooks used a credit card. Via their transaction, the Swedish police were able to track down 10 people in relation to the crime. These men were arrested and put on trial: seven were convicted for 10 years, three were acquitted, and one Renoir was safely recovered.

Five years later, a Bulgarian drug dealer named Boris, whilst wiretapped, claimed he was looking to sell a certain Swedish Renoir. Two weeks later, at a pawn shop on Wilshire Boulevard, he was seized by FBI in the midst of grabbing the painting from the trunk of his car. The Getty conservators verified it, and the $3.2 million painting made its way back to the Swedish National Gallery. And so, the second Renoir was recovered.

Before releasing this phenomenal news in a national press conference, Robert Wittman suggested making the most of Boris the Bulgarian. Boris indicated knowing where the stolen Rembrandt was, so why not have him “set up” a bogus deal in Copenhagen? “We didn’t have Natasha or Rocky Squirrel, but we had Boris”, Wittman laughed with a twinkle in his eye. Between train rides from Stockholm and Copenhagen, the crew negotiated $250,000 cash in exchange for the priceless copper piece. At this point in the story, you could feel the tension palpitating across the Zoom call screen. Participant faces were watching Robert Wittman imploringly: what could possibly happen next?

There was a moment of panic when the mobsters made a fake dash with the painting in a counter surveillance move, but this was ultimately resolved. I couldn’t imagine standing there in Robert Wittman’s shoes, having the priceless Rembrandt within reach but in criminal hands – to keep appearances up by a hair, behind a façade that could break with one wrong word. They reconvened in Wittman’s tiny hotel room for the authentication – surveillance camera keeping a keen watch all the while – FBI agents next door were waiting with baited breath for an opportune moment to pounce. 

At this last leg of the journey, there was moment of absolute irony – which I just have to retell. To verify that this was the Swedish Museum’s Rembrandt, Robert Wittman turned the work over to check the four screws that held the painting in frame. In the photographs, these screws were turned at certain angle…

“When I saw that those screws were at the same angles I said, “hey, you didn’t take it out of the frame did you?” And they looked at me, they were shocked, and they said, “Of course not – it’s a Rembrandt!”

Apart from the surreal nature of such an off-hand comment, given the context, this exchange is also rather poignant: even these would-be debonair thieves were in awe of what they had. After a brief but successful authentication, there was nothing more to do but complete the bust. The code sentence was spoken loud and clear and, right on cue, the SWAT team burst through the door to save the day. Thus, the last of the stolen trio was recovered.

Figure 2: screenshot from session one, Robert Wittman with recovered Rembrandt self-portrait, Art Crime: How Masterpieces are Stolen and Discovered. Credit: Christie’s Education and Robert Wittman.

About the author: Alexandra Taylor is a paintings conservator. She is currently a Fellow at Stichting Restauratie Atelier Limburg (SRAL). Prior to this she has worked internationally, holding positions at Saltmarsh Paintings Conservation in Cambridge and the Phoebus Foundation in Antwerp. Her interests lie in the treatment of Old Masters and the fundamental aspects of paintings analysis, research, and the valorisation of results. Alexandra received her conjoint BFA(h)/BA at the University of Auckland (NZ) and MA in Cultural Materials Conservation at the University of Melbourne (AUS). She is a 2019 GAF Fellow at the International Specialised Skills Institute in Melbourne (AUS). Her Fellowship investigated current practice in preventing art crimes in conservation with the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (IT).

Disclaimer: this article is intended for educational purposes, and does not purport to provide legal advice. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author.

Thanks to Nathaniel Goldblum from Christie’s Education for granting me the opportunity to review such a fascinating talk.

In 2008 Robert Wittman left the FBI and established his own company, Robert Wittman Incorporated (see below). A reason for breaking away and turning to the private sector includes being able to assess all types of situations related to art crime – including museum security service, collection management and expert witness testimony. The FBI turns away 80% of complaints because they aren’t considered criminal offences. Now, Robert Wittman can assist with both criminal and civil disputes – and currently handles 40-55 cases at any given moment.

For more information on Robert Wittman Inc., visit:

Some of Wittman’s more daring adventures are catalogued in two texts: Priceless and The Devil’s Diary: Alfred Rosenberg and the Stolen Secrets of the Third Reich.

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