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Robert Wittman, former director of the FBI Art Crime Team, tells tales of past heists in Penn Museum Credit: Matt Rosenthal , Matt Rosenthal

There was a time when you couldn’t take his photograph, but former FBI agent Robert K. Wittman wasn’t a bit camera-shy when he spoke to the 70 people at the Penn Museum yesterday.

Wittman, a former senior investigator and founder of the FBI National Art Crime Team, spoke about art crime and his career.

He began his talk with a clip of his appearance on the Colbert Report. “When I think of art crime, I think of Catherine Zeta-Jones, in a skin-tight suit, and somehow that helps her move through these grids,” Colbert said, demonstrating with his fingers the imaginary green grid in movies.

Throughout, Wittman made sure to point out the faulty associations the public holds about art crimes and the criminals involved.

Wittman began his career with the Philadelphia Field Division bureau in 1988. Until he retired in 2008, Wittman had worked in more than 20 different countries. He now operates his own art crime investigation and appraisal company.

The former agent presented statistics on the field of art crime. Art is a $200 billion international market, 40 percent of which is in the U.S. Of that $200 billion, $6 billion belongs to an illicit cultural property market.

“Fraud, thefts, fakes and looted artifacts are what we deal with in art crime investigation, but the biggest industry is fakes.”

Wittman’s very first case as an agent, which lasted from 1988 to 1991, involved recovering paintings and other stolen pieces from the Penn Museum. One of the objects he recovered was the crystal ball of Chinese Empress Dowager Cixi, the second largest in the world.

He tracked down the ball, which had passed through several hands, and returned the 50 pound artifact to the Penn Museum, now still on display in the middle of the China gallery.

Wittman was also involved in the recovery of a Peruvian gold back flap — a national treasure excavated in Sipan, Peru.

Richard M. Leventhal, anthropology professor and founder and director of the Penn Cultural Heritage Center invited Wittman to be the speaker as a part of a larger series of lectures.

“The lecture series is centered around two things,” he said. First is educational outreach — “it is part of the University’s intellectual landscape,” Leventhal added.

Second, the series discusses current projects how best to preserve heritages and work with local communities to identify problems.

“Right now we have projects in Turkey, Mexico, Belize and a couple of other locations,” Leventhal said. “That’s exciting to me, working with locals.”

College sophomore Katie Levesque, one of the few students at the event, found the talk through her job at the museum. “I have not heard of the speaker before. It was very interesting.”

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