The FBI agent who helped recover $300 million worth of stolen art explains what Hollywood gets wrong about art heists

  • Robert K. Wittman, author of the book “Priceless,” founded the FBI’s Art Crime Team and has helped recover more than $US300 million in stolen works.
  • There are many art heist movies involving elaborate schemes like “Ocean’s 8” and “The Thomas Crown Affair,” but these films aren’t very accurate.
  • Insider asked Wittman how the real life heists he’s witnessed compare to those made up by Hollywood.

Narrator: They’re popular in Hollywood, and we’ve all seen them before. The art heist film. The movies involve elaborate schemes to steal priceless paintings, jewellery, and artifacts.

Debbie Ocean: It’s over six pounds of diamonds.

Narrator: But they’re not very realistic.

Robert Wittman: I think they have glamorized it to the point where people may think it’s sexy.

Narrator: This is Robert Wittman. He spent twenty years with the FBI’s National Art Crimes Team, helping to recover more than $US300 million worth of stolen pieces. He told us that these heist films are far from how these heists go down in real life.

While each of these movies has its own twists and turns, films like 1999’s “The Thomas Crown Affair” and 2018’s “Ocean’s 8” follow a pretty similar formula. A mastermind decides what to steal from where. They may act alone, or assemble a team of specialists perfectly suited for their mission. The glamorous criminals crack an uncrackable safe or cleverly sneak past the guards to remove the valuable items. The thieves butt up against the law enforcement officers trying to track them down or stop them.

Turns out, these movies get every single one of these aspects wrong.

Let’s start from the beginning: the location of the heist.

Movies like “Ocean’s 8” aren’t all wrong. Oftentimes, heists do take place at museums, just not usually the big ones like the Met. Art theft is more likely to take place at smaller museums or historical societies where security isn’t so tight, and the success rate is higher.

Robert: It’s much more difficult to get through the security system at the Met or at the Louvre than it is to get in through a small house museum. It’s a whole different situation.

Narrator: So, while there have been thefts in the past from these places, they are rare.

Who are the the thieves?

Robert: And we found that 90% in the United States were done in-house. In other words, someone who had access to the collection. Could have been a worker there, or a curator, or even an expert going in and doing their research.

Narrator: So they’re not typically the Thomas Crown-type. No sharply dressed billionaire with a passion for art and a lot of free time on their hands. Just someone who has easy access on a daily basis.

How they pull off the heist.

In heist films, you often see thieves hacking security systems, weaving through laser beams, or lowering themselves down from the ceiling. But this is a bit extreme.

Robert: Usually it’s a crime of passion, or a crime of opportunity. It’s quick-in, quick-out, usually breaking doors. Not going through security systems, not turning things off.

Narrator: This sort of heist wouldn’t make a very long or interesting film, but it’s much more likely. While the Met claims to have a very sophisticated security system in place, it’s also not quite what you see in “The Thomas Crown Affair.”

Robert: In “[The] Thomas Crown Affair,” they had the movable walls closing up the paintings at the museum. I think they had a sprinkler system or something going on as well, with water coming down. That usually is not what’s gonna happen at a museum. I don’t know of any museum that has movable walls that come together.

Narrator: The pursuit. Law enforcement isn’t as dumb as they might come off in the movies, when it comes to tracking down the stolen works. And cops will often spend a lot of time undercover with the criminals to recover the stolen art. There are less armed robberies of art in the United States than in Europe, where thieves have a few advantages.

Robert: The countries have open borders, are very close to one another, so it’s easy to get away, and the security systems in a lot of the older museums are basically outdated.

Narrator: Regardless of the location, once the art is stolen, it’s actually nearly impossible to sell it. It’s not as simple as waltzing to the black market and finding a seller, especially if it’s a famous piece. For example, the Mona Lisa was actually stolen in 1911 by a man named Vincenzo Peruggia. He hid it at his home for two years before trying to sell it to a curator, who eventually turned him in to the police.

There was also a heist in 2000 at Stockholm’s National Museum in Sweden by robbers armed with machine guns. Wittman set his own trap with the thieves, who tried to sell more than $US30 million worth of art by Rembrandt and Renoir. He set up a deal to buy the pieces for just $US250,000.

Robert: It took ’em five years and all they found, these thieves, all they found were the police that were interested in buying it.

Narrator: Instead of selling the pieces, thieves will occasionally use stolen paintings as bargaining chips with cops, as a sort of of “Get Out of Jail, Free” card. In the end, all of that work and planning you see from thieves in movies is typically all for naught.

Robert: So really it’s a silly crime to commit.

Narrator: And we all lose when a piece of art is stolen, says Wittman.

Robert: Stealing a Manet is much different from stealing a Chevrolet. A Chevrolet can be recovered, or it can be replaced. You cannot replace a Manet or a Rembrandt. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. And we all suffer that loss.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.