The meeting is set, the details firm: cash for diamonds. Bob Clay enters the lobby of a Philadelphia hotel, the jewels in a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist. He spots his buyer, who motions toward the elevator. But something doesn’t feel right. “Why is this guy wearing a heavy coat?” thinks Clay. “It’s sweltering in here.” Clay goes with his gut. He discreetly touches his hand to his back pocket— the take-down signal. A half-dozen bystanders suddenly transform into federal agents, weapons drawn. They search the suspect’s coat to find only a handgun and a hatchet. No cash for the deal. He’d intended to murder Clay, divesting him of the diamonds—and his arm. It could be a scene from a heart-pounding Hollywood thriller. But for Clay,
who is really undercover FBI agent Robert Wittman ’80, it’s just another day on
“I had a few close calls,” he laughs. “Yeah, there were some tense moments.”
While most agents get their kicks from million-dollar drug busts and international arms deals, Wittman made a career pursuing the priceless. He’s posed as
a mobster, a disbarred lawyer, a crooked antiques dealer, a university professor,
even a philanthropic Internet tycoon—all in the name of art.
As the founder of the FBI’s Art Crime Team, he specialized in the retrieval of
stolen art and antiquities from all over the world—going undercover to rescue
an estimated $300 million in stolen property over 20 years.
“Everybody works drugs and guns,” says Wittman. “Trouble is, when you
make a bust, there are just more drugs and more guns to take their place. I
would have burned out. With art, I was able to recover priceless artifacts and
return irreplaceable pieces of history that belong to us all. Putting away bad
guys was a bonus.”
15 WINTER 2011 towson