One wintry night in 1978, a band of thieves stole seven Norman Rockwell paintings worth more than $500,000 from a St. Louis Park art gallery. Two decades later, after most leads had gone cold and the FBI had closed the case, the paintings surfaced. Here, the untold story of where they went and how they were found.
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On February 16, 1978, more than 500 people gathered at Elayne Galleries in St. Louis Park to drink champagne, eat cake, and celebrate Norman Rockwell’s 84th birthday. The famed painter of iconic American images wasn’t present, but several of his works were on display. The gallery’s owners, Elayne and Russ Lindberg, had a national reputation for handling Rockwell’s works and had organized the largest exhibition of his work ever assembled in a private show.
The show had all the trappings of a major opening. It featured roughly three dozen pieces, including eight original Rockwell paintings, numerous Rockwell lithographs, and a seascape attributed to French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Four of the Rockwells, titled So Much Concern, The Spirit of ’76, Hasty Retreat, and Lickin’ Good Bath, were on loan from Brown & Bigelow, the St. Paul calendar company that had been commissioning images from Rockwell for reproduction since the 1920s. Two additional Rockwells—Boy Scout and She’s My Baby—had been borrowed from private owners.
The Lindbergs rounded out the show with a pair of paintings owned by the gallery itself. These two pieces, collectively titled Before the Date, were especially valuable, because they were among the last pictures Rockwell had created for the Saturday Evening Post. They depict a teenage girl and her boyfriend, each getting dressed to go out on a date. The girl is bending toward the mirror in front of her, and the way her slip clings to her was too risqué for the Post. When the magazine’s editors altered the image and published it without Rockwell’s consent, the artist was upset. That incident hastened the end of his decades-long relationship with the publication.
In total, the works were valued at more than $500,000. Given the paintings’ prestige and provenance, security was a serious concern. The year before the Rockwell show, the Lindbergs, who had been in business for nearly a decade, had relocated to a 2,000-square-foot-space on Excelsior Boulevard and had hired a contractor to make the gallery theft-proof. An alarm system was installed, and a Pinkerton guard was retained for the duration of the Rockwell exhibit.
But sometime after the birthday party ended, after the guests had gone and the Lindbergs had driven home, a band of thieves punched the lock on the gallery’s back door and disabled the alarm system. Seven of the eight Rockwells and the Renoir were stolen. Oddly, the Pinkerton guard was missing in action while the theft took place. (“No one has ever figured out where he was,” says Bonnie Lindberg, Elayne and Russ’s daughter, who joined the business in 1976.) But it was the guard who discovered the theft.
It was—and remains—the biggest, priciest, and most infamous art theft in Twin Cities history.
The St. Louis Park Police quickly pieced together a well-planned burglary that they estimated took about 15 minutes. Only the most valuable pieces on display were stolen.
Investigators theorized that something or someone—maybe the guard—startled the robbers, because one of the Rockwells, Boy Scout, hadn’t been stolen. A black garbage bag had been left on the floor. Investigators surmised that the missing paintings were taken out in the same type of sack, and that the one left behind would have been used to grab the last Rockwell.
The Lindbergs told investigators that the day before the party three men who didn’t seem like typical customers came into the gallery. One of them wore sunglasses while he viewed the paintings. After splitting up and browsing awhile, they gathered in the room where the Renoir seascape was on display. They were overheard discussing the painting’s value and what kind of measures might be in place to protect it. Russ followed them outside, watched them get into a white 1972 Chevrolet, and took down the license plate number as they drove away.
The police checked the plate number and determined the car had been bought and sold three times in the previous month. The only owner of record who could be traced was quickly cleared of any involvement. Based on the descriptions of the men who had visited the gallery, investigators developed a photo lineup of likely suspects and showed it to the Lindbergs and their employees. There was one match, and the police began a probe of the man in question. In the case file assembled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation his name is redacted, but the man is described as “an excellent burglar with numerous organized-crime contacts” who was fingered by an informant as “good for the job.” FBI agents eventually linked him to a second suspect, a well-known Twin Cities criminal, but there apparently wasn’t enough evidence to bring charges against either man.
The two private collectors involved with the show were furious about the loss of their works. The owner of the Renoir seascape that disappeared, a Bloomington man named Robert “Buddy” Verson, had done a fair bit of business with Elayne Galleries over the years. His Renoir was newly purchased when he offered to show it alongside the Rockwells at the Lindbergs’ gallery. Elayne cautioned him that she wouldn’t show the work unless he insured it. He said he had, but later he admitted he hadn’t. He threatened to sue the gallery, but then apparently thought better of it. He remained on friendly terms with Elayne.
The owner of She’s My Baby was Minneapolis collector Bob Horvath. The theft of his painting only compounded his problems; he was under investigation by the feds when the heist took place. He wanted to sue as well, but before he could, he was convicted of money laundering and sentenced to several years in prison.
The theft was well-publicized, and the Lindbergs received a variety of tips that led nowhere. Psychics offered advice. Phone calls from people claiming to be in possession of the paintings—and willing to surrender them for sums ranging from $50,000 to $500,000—became routine. When a mental patient suggested that the paintings were hidden in the ceiling of the gallery,
the police tore into the ceiling tiles—and found nothing.
The FBI soon took over the case on the assumption that organized crime was involved. Just about every major art theft has proven mob-related. The Russian Mafia, La Cosa Nostra, and several offshoots of South American drug gangs are known to steal art, using well-established methods and channels to turn the loot into cash.
Searching for a link between the heist and organized crime, the FBI turned up some surprising leads: Both Elayne and Buddy Verson had potential ties to the criminal underworld.