On April 1, 1976, two men smashed a window of the Idaho State Historical Museum.
"It was only about 8- by 10-[inches]," said Arthur Hart, director emeritus of the Idaho State Historical Society. "One of them must have been awful skinny, because he squeezed through there, and once he got in, he could easily let the other guy in."
The museum lacked a security system. As the lone guard made his way toward the sound of broken glass hitting the tiled floors, he spotted the thieves, who bolted.
"They sort of panicked when they ran away," said Hart."They dropped one big tray, and it was found outside the museum."
The tray was from a set of silver flatware, emblazoned with the State's "Esto Perpetua" seal and the words "U.S.S. Idaho." The beautiful sterling set came from the U.S.S. Idaho battleship, which was decommissioned after World War II, and was valued at $75,000. The thieves also made off with a set of silver coins, gifted to the museum by then-Gov. Cecil Andrus.
The silver was never found.
"What we were always worried about is if they melted it down," said Hart. "Some say they might have buried it in the Owyhees."
The heist became sensational news and then the stuff of legend before finally fading out of the collective memory. Hart and others believe the artifacts are gone for good, melted down for the price of silver. But international arts crime expert Robert Wittman, who will speak at the Senate Auditorium in the Idaho Capitol Building on Thursday, Jan. 19, thinks otherwise.
"I don't see it being melted down," said Wittman, who is unfamiliar with the case but ventured a guess anyway. "The value of it would be in the historical value of the ship, not from the value of the silver itself. Today, [silver is] $30 an ounce, back then it was $3 or $4 an ounce."
Wittman, who helped solidify the arts crime division during a 20-year career with the FBI, says these cases tend to resurface years later.
"I'm working a case from 1963, one from 1973 and another from 1996. These are old cases, and they never stop because there's a whole bunch of new information on the Internet," said Wittman.
In one of his cases, Wittman recovered a Civil War-era battle flag believed to have been stolen in 1976.
While with the FBI, Wittman recovered more than $200 million worth of stolen art, working undercover around the globe. From a private yacht cruise in Miami with a French millionaire--complete with bikini-clad undercover FBI agents--to a Santa Fe, N.M., operation that netted a dealer unloading a headdress that once belonged to Geronimo, Wittman's life is the stuff of movies. In fact, the movie National Treasure with Nicolas Cage was inspired by Wittman's case involving a stolen original copy of the Bill of Rights.
"The really expensive stuff, we tend to get back 90 percent of the time," said Wittman. "The really high-value items, the items like the Picassos that are worth millions, are really hard to sell because they're famous. The things that are sold in the $100,000s and below, they can be sold in antique stores and at auctions because they're not as well known."
Rembrandt's 1630 self-portrait--nabbed from a Swedish museum in a heist that later inspired the movie The Italian Job--was valued at $36 million. But the bad guys couldn't unload the painting, not for even a fraction of the real value. Wittman went undercover to help Swedish authorities recover the piece, which the thieves offered to sell him for a mere $250,000.
"It's not like a car that you can cut up and sell, and it's not like gold. It's an individual piece that if you do anything to it, decreases its value. There's a big difference between a Chevrolet and a Monet."
Wittman's book, Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures, is full of tales of his undercover operations. But they differ from the movies. Wittman doesn't go in guns-blazing to kill bad guys, and the bad guys don't dodge red lasers in the museums to snatch diamonds. But sometimes these criminals also dabble in homicide and drug running, so death is a real risk.
"In Spain, I remember one time, I was showing the bad guys photographs of the paintings that were stolen. They recognized the photos as coming from the FBI stolen-art website," said Wittman. "When they realized it, they said something like, 'Hey, you got those pictures from the FBI website.'"
In came men carrying guns and Wittman's blood ran cold. He tried to play it casual, saying, "It was the only place I could get all the pictures." The bad guys took the bait.
In high-stakes situations like those, he said, things go wrong. A SWAT team once rushed a sting operation in a hotel room with Wittman and the criminals inside. When the key card jammed, Wittman improvised. But sometimes, the stress can make you slip up.
"I was in Santa Fe on the Native American Indian case," recalled Wittman. "I was signing the check, from one of the bills from dinner, and I signed my real name. You know what happens, you get really comfortable after a while doing things. It becomes second nature."
Wittman now runs a consulting firm with his wife and two sons. They sell art, run security for museums and partner with law enforcement to retrieve stolen pieces. He said the problem with security isn't the lack of an Indiana Jones-style rolling ball.
"I gotta say, in the United States, it's very good. The buildings are built with security in mind. We lead the world in technology when it comes to security," said Wittman. "But you don't hear very much about museum heists in the U.S. When you go over to Europe, it's very hard to secure a 12th century castle with walls that are 20 feet thick."
The thieves know that. With more museums per square mile than the United States, Europe is a hot-spot for art theft. Just this month, a Greek museum was robbed of works by Picasso and Mondrian.
As for Idaho's missing silver?
"That stuff never goes away; it's still out there," laughed Wittman, ever the optimist. "They oughta call me and see if we can find it."