Protecting the past

Art detective Robert K. Wittman at DAI

 By Leo DeLuca

Photo: “Living legend” and art detectiveRobert K. Wittman will speak about his adventures at the Dayton Art Institute on Nov. 21; photo: Donna Wittman

Robert K. Wittman, former senior investigator and founder of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Art Crime Team, will speak at the Dayton Art Institute Thursday, Nov. 21. The presentation is part of the Fifth Third Bank Arts Night Out series.

Hailed as a “living legend” by The Wall Street Journal, Wittman joined the FBI as a special agent in 1988 and has recovered well over $225 million in stolen art and cultural property since that time. The artifacts Wittman has retrieved range from a self-portrait of Rembrandt to a rare copy of the Bill of Rights.

During a speech given at Tuckerman Hall in Worcester, Mass., Wittman remarked that theft of artwork is, “About a $6 billion industry” and, according to the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), it is, “The fourth largest crime, worldwide.” Wittman’s line of work is certainly singular; his efforts have helped preserve intellectual achievement across the globe.

After two decades working for the FBI, Wittman struck out on his own and started Robert Wittman, Inc. He is also the author of the New York Times best-selling book “Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures.”

Dayton City Paper had the opportunity to speak with Dayton Art Institute Executive Director Michael Roediger and Marketing and Communications Manager Eric Brockman about Robert Wittman, DAI’s programming and more.

How did you first learn about Robert Wittman? 

We work with local programmer Tina McPhearson and she found him and brought him to our attention. Tina is great at finding the right shows. She was with Victoria Theatre Association for nearly 20 years and helped to bring such blockbusters as Wicked and Lion King to Dayton for the first time. – Michael Roediger

What is the nature of Wittman’s appearance at the DAI’s “Arts Night Out Series?” Who had the idea? Is this something you’ve wanted to do for a good while? 

Who doesn’t love a good mystery story filled with daring adventures and international intrigue? Art theft is a topic as old as the history of art, so there’s always an interest in it, both among the public and the media. A good example is the story that made international headlines earlier this month, about the recovery of a large stash of art in Munich that had been stolen during World War II. Earlier this year, we presented a talk by Raymond Dowd, a noted attorney who has been involved with a number of court cases related to recovering art looted by the Nazis, and it was very well received. Wittman’s talk is a natural continuation and extension of that. – Eric Brockman

Have you ever employed Wittman’s services at the DAI? 

No, thank goodness. But it’s an important topic for everyone at the museum – from our curatorial and security teams to our guest services staff and volunteers – to be aware of. We’re encouraging all of our staff to attend the show.  -EB

What can attendees expect from Wittman’s presentation?

Wittman spent more than 20 years in the FBI as the nation’s top art crime investigator, and he helped create the FBI’s Art Crime Team. He went undercover numerous times during his career with the FBI and helped recover more than $225 million worth of stolen art, ranging from $35 million Rembrandts to an original copy of the Bill of Rights. He’s been referred to as “the FBI’s real Indiana Jones,” and while that may be a bit of an exaggeration, it’s not far from the truth.

Wittman’s presentation is about 90 minutes long, and includes a slideshow highlighting scenes from many of his adventures. There will be a question and answer session with him in the auditorium following the talk. He will also be available after the show to sign copies of his book in the museum rotunda. -EB

Is there anything else you would like to add for our readers?  

The “Fifth Third Banks Arts Night Out” series engages people in performances that are loosely related to visual art in an effort make people feel more comfortable and welcome in the museum. It’s part of our larger effort to expand the museum’s audience by presenting a diverse mix of programming that appeals to a broad audience. These shows are often interesting, funny, heartwarming and of course, artistic. Our hope is that they not only appeal to our traditional visual arts audiences, but also attract people who might not otherwise visit the museum. We are so grateful for the sponsorship support Fifth Third Bank has provided, which will allow us to continue the series for at least the next three seasons. -MC

I would also like to add that our Leo Bistro restaurant will be open for dinner before the Robert K. Wittman show. It will also be open before the upcoming “Spontaneous Fantasia” performance on December 5. Renee McClure of Elite Catering, which operates the Bistro, is preparing a special dinner menu featuring some of her favorite recipes. -EB


Robert K. Wittman will speak at the Dayton Art Institute’s NCR Renaissance Auditorium on Thursday, Nov. 21, 8 p.m. The presentation is part of the Fifth Third Bank Arts Night Out Series. Tickets are $30 for adults and $26 for seniors. Leo Bistro in the DAI is preparing a special dinner beforehand, separate from the show. Advance reservations for dinner are recommended – call 937.512.0146. For more information online, please visit and 


Reach DCP freelance writer Leo DeLuca at


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