PRICELESS: How I Went Undercover to Rescue The World's Stolen Treasures
Robert K. Wittman with John Shiffman Crown
ISBN 978 0 307 46147 6
Reviewed by Sarah Halzack
Robert K. Wittman wasn't an ordinary FBI agent. Instead of tracking terrorists or busting drug kingpins and mobsters, he carved out a niche as art crime specialist. During his 20-year career, Wittman recovered over $225-million worth of artwork and historical artifacts in undercover stings all over the globe. His memoir, "Priceless," written with John Shiffman, is an account of how he planned and pulled off some of his high-stakes operations, rescuing treasures like an original copy of the Bill of Rights and paintings by Rembrandt and Renoir.
Almost every case he recounts has enough intrigue and suspense for a Hollywood screenplay. Describing a time he worked in Madrid to retrieve a collection of paintings by artists like Goya and Pissarro, Wittman writes: "Tomorrow, if everything went according to plan: I'd be entering another hotel room across town. To meet a desperate, possibly homicidal gangster eager to close a $10 million deal. Unarmed. Dangling a million euros cash as bait. Working with an FBI partner on his first undercover case. Negotiating in French, a language I didn't understand. Swell."
Less exciting but no less interesting are the details of how this former salesman and journalist fell into such a unique job and came to excel at it. He had to develop an expertise in art and antiques that would convince thieves he was a serious buyer. And he had to learn the nuts and bolts of going undercover, which meant being patient, winning a criminal's trust and fine-tuning an ability to detect and avoid danger. This behind-the-scenes look at the immense skill and knowledge required to execute such an operation makes his stories even more gripping.
Sarah Halzack can be reached at halzacks(at symbol)washpost.com.
Julia Donaldson Illustrated by Lydia Monks
ISBN 978 0 8050 9028 4
$16.99; ages 4-6
Reviewed by Kristi Jemtegaard
Parades of animals stream through these two titles -- one silly, the other sweet. Start the day with Julia Donaldson's bouncy ode to life on a noisy farm and to one special inhabitant who, unlike the other critters, "never said a word." Never, that is, until "two men in a big black van, / With a map and a key and a cunning plan" arrive to steal the "fine prize cow." That's when the smallest of all goes into action: "'Help!' was the ladybug's very first word, / And 'Gather around' were the second and third." Flamboyant colors, zany perspectives and a neatly circular tale lead, with satisfying inevitability, to a happy outcome for all but the thieves.
End the day with "A Sick Day for Amos McGee" (Roaring Brook, $16.99; ages 3-5), by Philip C. Stead and illustrated by Erin E. Stead. A zookeeper by profession and an animal lover by nature, gentle, fastidious Amos McGee tends to much more than just his charges' health. He plays chess with the elephant ("who thought and thought before making a move"), runs races with the tortoise ("who never ever lost"), and spends quiet time with the penguin ("who was very shy"). In a tribute to the ineffable bond between keeper and kept, it is impossible to tell if the animals' expressions are a perfect mirror of Amos' or the other way around. And that is the crux of the story, for when Amos gets sick, it is the animals who take on the business of caring for their favorite human. Thick, creamy paper and a muted palette add to the gentle resonance of a story that ends with everyone tucked in at last for a sweet night's sleep.