The Heist

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.

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.

 

Elayne was a smart, ambitious, and personable woman. She was blonde and pretty, and according to one person who knew her, she “reminded you of a hostess at a nice restaurant.” For a while, she and Russ had a magic act: Elayne was the gal in fishnet stockings who was sawed in half. In 1949, the same year their daughter Bonnie was born, she and Russ moved to St. Louis Park. A year later, Russ started an interior-decorating business, which eventually led him into buying and selling artwork.

Elayne stayed at home, raising the couple’s two children. “But by the time I entered junior high,” Bonnie recalls, “she was itching for something to do. She taught herself handwriting analysis. At first, she was curious about the personality traits handwriting reveals. But she got into the forensics end and became very good at spotting forgeries.”

In fact, Elayne proved so talented at spotting false signatures that she was soon in demand as an expert witness at forgery trials. Police departments and private clients sought her out, and in 1966, Dayton’s department store hired her as a store detective. In the course of her work, she became familiar with the names and reputations of several Twin Cities crooks—in particular, the ones who trafficked in stolen merchandise. Among them was a low-profile fence named Buddy Verson, who tended to deal in high-end merchandise. He was an investor in wholesale liquor businesses and, according to the FBI, was chronically in debt to bookmakers.

In 1969, Elayne left her Dayton’s job. Disorganized crime was gaining a foothold in downtown Minneapolis, and collaring shoplifters was no work for a lady. After one robber drew a gun on her, Elayne decided to call it quits. “It just got too dangerous,” Bonnie recalls.

The Lindbergs had always been interested in art, so they decided to open a gallery. It was the right time to get into the business. “There was a kind of boom in high-end art as an investment,” Bonnie says. At first, the business thrived by selling off a large collection of European oil paintings that Russ had acquired in connection with his work. By the mid-seventies, the gallery had sold a number of Rockwell lithographs and was known as a dealer of the artist’s work. In 1977, in need of more space, the Lindbergs relocated to Excelsior Boulevard.

The gallery’s list of customers grew and grew. Bonnie says she doesn’t know what prompted Verson or Horvath to become clients, but by the time the Rockwell show opened in 1978, both had established relationships with the Lindbergs. Horvath had bought She’s My Baby, which he loaned back to the gallery for the Rockwell exhibit. Verson had purchased five Rockwell lithographs.

Verson had considerable respect for Elayne Lindberg’s knowledge of art. A week before the Rockwell opening, he asked a favor of her: Would she fly to Miami to authenticate a painting? A Spanish-speaking stewardess from Florida had alerted Verson of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. An original Renoir was available at a bargain price. It belonged to a Cuban refugee who had fled to Miami after converting his cash to art because he feared the Castro regime would grab any liquid assets he possessed. Now he needed to sell the painting.

Verson wondered if Elayne could authenticate a Renoir. She assured him she could, but she’d gotten in over her head. Authentication is a tricky business, requiring a deep knowledge of an artist’s work, and Elayne simply was not qualified to assess French impressionist paintings. Nevertheless, she went to Miami, viewed the seascape, performed a “blue light” test, and informed Verson that in all likelihood the Renoir was authentic. Its estimated value was $250,000. Verson flew to Florida the next day and purchased it for $10,000. A week later, it went on display at Elayne Galleries, hung alongside the Rockwells.

But the Renoir, it turns out, was a fake. Shortly after the theft, investigators discovered that the stewardess and her Florida accomplices had been trying to peddle the forgery for at least two years. They talked to an antiques dealer in Bethel, Minnesota, who nearly bought it in 1976; the dealer lost interest after he sent detailed photos of the work to an internationally recognized expert who said there wasn’t the slightest possibility that it was real. The people trying to sell the fake Renoir were members of an organized-crime ring, according to the FBI. Agents linked the ring to the sale of two fake Rembrandts in 1975.

It’s unclear if Verson was simply a victim of the ring, an accomplice who was trying to work off a debt, or both. The FBI seemed to believe both. They knew Verson was deeply in debt to a local bookmaker with mob connections. Their theory, the only one they ever came up with, was that he’d offered to help set up the theft so the debt would go away. Bonnie later discovered that the contractor who’d been hired to make the gallery theft-proof was an acquaintance of Verson’s.

But if that theory is correct, why was Verson’s Renoir—which he believed authentic—also stolen? The FBI theorized that the Florida ring must have feared that leaving it behind would lead to an investigation of the painting’s history, thus revealing it as a fake and exposing their fraud to Verson. If it was snatched, however, it couldn’t be examined.

FBI agents interrogated both Elayne and Verson about the Renoir deal after the gallery break-in. Verson played cat and mouse with agents about the Renoir’s value, art, and why he was interested in it. He said he’d relied entirely on Elayne’s expertise when he bought the piece, because, to him, it looked like a finger painting.

While Verson remained a suspect, investigators soon dropped their theories about Elayne’s possible ties to the theft. And when Verson asked Elayne to return to Florida a few weeks later to buy more paintings from the same source, the FBI apparently enlisted her in an attempt to bust the fraudulent art ring. An undercover agent was sent alongside Elayne to document the sale of a fake Corot.

Did Verson know Elayne was working with the FBI? Was a case ever made against the Miami art sellers? The records are mum on those questions, and Bonnie doesn’t know.

Buddy Verson died suddenly, at age 40, just three months after the Rockwell heist. His obituary indicated he suffered a heart attack, but Bonnie was told otherwise: “The contractor who’d theft-proofed the gallery came around to borrow some money, and while we were talking, he said, ‘Didn’t you know that Buddy owed gambling debts to the mob and they killed him?’ It had never occurred to us until then that Buddy had been murdered.”

Two years after the theft, Minneapolis attorney Joe Friedberg, who was defending Horvath against money-laundering charges, got a phone call. “The guy wouldn’t identify himself,” he says. “He asked me if I would be willing to negotiate for the return of the stolen artwork through the insurer.”

The caller said it was a fleeting opportunity. If he didn’t get a positive response soon, the art would be destroyed—an empty threat, but typical of how stolen art is turned into cash. Mobsters routinely wait until a case is inactive, then contact the owners and ask for an exorbitant sum of money. Occasionally it works. If it doesn’t, the art disappears into well-established European channels. It usually surfaces again years later at a more reasonable price.

 

Friedberg called the Minnesota Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board and asked if it was ethical to do what the caller had requested.

“They told me they didn’t have a position on that,” Friedberg explains, “but they also said that there’d been a case in Ohio where a lawyer had done exactly what I was asked to do and had been convicted of a felony. So I decided to pass.”

The FBI’s interest in the case seemed to wane after Verson’s death. The case was put on inactive status in 1981, then closed and reopened several times over the next decade on the basis of information provided by Bonnie and Elayne.

Bonnie continued to hear rumors about the paintings’ whereabouts. A Detroit lawyer contacted one of the insurance companies involved in the matter, claiming to represent a mob-connected burglar who had the paintings. Another lawyer, who said he knew the fate of the paintings and represented “the mob,” told the Lindbergs the works would be destroyed if a deal wasn’t made soon. “I never got a name,” Bonnie says. “Rockwell was never mentioned. It was all code words like ‘the property,’ ‘the items’—that kind of thing. We went to the FBI, and they advised us not to go through with it. They said if we did, we’d be in possession of stolen property because insurance had been paid on some of the paintings.”

In 1991, the Eleanor Ettinger Gallery in New York, which specialized in Americana and had handled the sale of many Rockwell works, contacted Bonnie. Gallery owner Eleanor Ettinger had been advised that the paintings were in South America. A flurry of phone calls led to a source who wanted a “substantial finder’s fee.” It was more than the Lindbergs would or could pay.

Then, in April 1993, Bonnie got a phone call from a man in Las Vegas. He claimed to be an insurance salesman who also owned a travel agency and a currency exchange in Rio De Janiero. He said the Rockwell paintings were in the hands of the Brazilian federal police and indicated he could negotiate with them.

Around the same time, a letter addressed “Dear Ms. Elayne” arrived from the Schreiner Gallery in Lisbon. The writer also claimed that the paintings were in Rio. He wanted the Lindbergs’ help in a plot to “lure them back to Portugal.”

“I contacted the FBI, and they had absolutely no interest at all,” Bonnie says. “So I took it upon myself to call Interpol. As soon as I made that call, maybe a day later, an FBI agent appeared at our door. He asked me to keep communications going and apprise him of what went on, but he also said that the FBI couldn’t offer any assistance.”

Bonnie also was contacted by the director of the National Scouting Museum. He told her that someone in Las Vegas had offered the stolen Rockwells to the museum and said they were being held in Brazil. Later that year, Bonnie received a fax—bearing a Miami area code—from a fellow named Luis Palma. He listed the names of the purloined Rockwells and asked if they were indeed stolen. Of all the leads the Lindbergs had gotten over the years, this seemed the most promising.

Shortly after the correspondence with Palma commenced, in 1994, Elayne died; Russ passed away in 1996. But Bonnie maintained her search for the Rockwells.

She continued to exchange faxes with Palma. He seemed friendly and forthright and said he represented Jose Maria Carneiro, a wealthy, respected art dealer and teacher in Brazil. Carneiro had acquired six of the stolen paintings: the pair that belonged to the Lindbergs plus the four belonging to Brown & Bigelow. His wife, a customs agent, had seized them from a party who’d been forced to give them up as the price of entry into Brazil. According to Brazilian law, their subsequent sale was legal, and Carniero, who claimed he paid $200,000 for them, was now their legitimate owner.

Negotiations progressed slowly until 1998, when Bonnie arranged to meet Carniero at a hotel in New York. He was personable, gregarious, and knowledgeable about art. “It was bizarre,” she says of her dinner with the Brazilian, “but we knew there was no legal way to get them back. Was there a friendly way to negotiate?” Bonnie agreed to buy back both of the gallery’s paintings, but only after one was shipped to her without payment as a sign of good faith. In late 1998, it arrived.

It was the beginning of the end of a long, costly search. Upon receipt of the first painting, Bonnie wired $40,000 to a bank account in Miami, and in January 1999, the second was returned. KARE 11 News scored a ratings coup when anchor Rick Kupchella and his crew filmed her unwrapping the returned paintings then accompanied her to Rio De Janiero a few weeks later to view the rest of the long-vanished pieces at Carniero’s home in the palm-forested, suburban foothills. Bonnie’s tearful reaction as she laid eyes on the last four stolen Rockwells made for riveting TV.

“You bet I was emotional,” Bonnie, now 61, recalls. “It was a crime that happened to me and my family, and the stolen paintings were immensely valuable. I’d been looking for them most of my adult life without much help from investigators.”

But Bonnie Lindberg’s devotion to finding the paintings wasn’t entirely selfless, says retired FBI agent Robert Wittman. He established the bureau’s art-crime team in 2005, and in 2001, using a newly brokered treaty between the United States and Brazil, he helped arrange the return of the remaining Rockwells from Carniero. Brown & Bigelow agreed to pay $100,000 to get the paintings back—a fraction of their estimated value—and Wittman carried the artwork back to America. He details his involvement in the case in a chapter of his recently published book, Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue The World’s Stolen Treasures.

Wittman acknowledges that the case had gone cold long before he got involved and that the Lindbergs’ passion for the search was vital to the recovery of all the paintings. But he says the hullabaloo Bonnie and the KARE 11 team created in Rio De Janiero almost torpedoed delicate negotiations between Brazil and the United States on the legal-assistance treaty, finalized in 2000, that facilitated the return of the remaining Rockwells. Wittman claims Bonnie used tears and TV to goose the market for the two paintings she recovered. She had little interest in the fate of the others, he says, because she had no claim on them.

“That was the first time that treaty was actually utilized,” Wittman says. “And Bonnie going down there with a Minneapolis TV station before we got it signed certainly didn’t help. It almost killed the case for us. Bonnie had already been to New York to have those painting appraised for auction. She was out to make a buck. ”

Not so, counters Bonnie. “I had them appraised because I’d spent a lot of money searching for them, and I had to recoup my costs,” she says. “And how could I know that negotiations for a treaty were going on? The FBI never told me anything. I’d been pleading with them for information for two decades. I was looking for the paintings, but they seemed to be looking for reasons to close the case.”

Shortly after getting her Rockwells back, Bonnie sold them at auction for $180,000. Records suggest that over the years the Lindbergs spent roughly $105,000 in search, recovery, and insurance-reimbursement costs.

Bonnie credits Wittman with the kind of resolve that she found lacking in the FBI’s investigation but notes that he didn’t become involved until 1999. It was the information that she and her mother gathered over the years, and her negotiations with Carneiro, that had kept the case alive. She believes those efforts are the only reason the Rockwell paintings were recovered.

In 2001, Bonnie closed Elayne Galleries and started Appraisal Specialists Midwest, a related but less-intense enterprise. “Recovering the Rockwells closed a chapter in my life,” she says. (Verson’s “Renoir” was never found.)

Bonnie notes that her mother had taken an active part in the search for the Rockwells right up until her death, at age 71. “One of the things that kept me going,” Bonnie says, “was knowing how badly she wanted those paintings back with their rightful owners.”

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