The extraordinary theft of seven Norman Rockwell paintings and a phony Renoir—and the 20-year chase for their recovery from the Midwest through Europe and South America
Publication Year: 2013
Published by: Minnesota Historical Society Press
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Title Page, Copyright
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On the evening of February 16, 1978, more than five hundred people gathered at Elayne Galleries in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, to drink champagne, celebrate Norman Rockwell’s eighty-fourth birthday, and maybe purchase some art. It was the largest show of Rockwell’s paintings ever held in a private gallery. The plans originally included...
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In fiction and film, art theft is depicted as a trade plied by master criminals who plan their robberies meticulously in order to foil elaborate security measures. In reality, most art is pilfered opportunistically by thieves who know an easy score when they spot one. Works that are marketable but not well known make up the bulk of stolen art, but more than...
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The building at 6111 Excelsior Boulevard was Elayne Galleries’ second location. Six years before the robbery, it had opened in a St. Louis Park storefront, with an inventory of European oil paintings that Russ Lindberg had acquired in connection with his interior decorating business. Sales were brisk, and the Lindbergs soon decided they...
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The robbery at Elayne Galleries was well publicized. Several news stories described the three men who visited the gallery the day before. Investigators braced themselves for a deluge of tips and told the Lindbergs to do the same. They weren’t disappointed. Phone calls offering information and theories came from Lodi, California...
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Immediately after the theft, the FBI identified three gallery insiders who might have contacts with professional burglars, and—either through them or independently—with organized crime. Suspect one was Bob Horvath, the owner of one of the stolen Rockwells, who had done extensive business with...
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Suspect two was the ultimate insider at Elayne Galleries, Elayne Lindberg, a self-invented dynamo of a woman whose occupation before she went into the art business put her in contact with thieves and familiarized her with the flow of stolen goods in the Twin Cities. Elayne was born...
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That left one more insider, Robert “Buddy” Verson. After their initial investigations, the FBI assumed that he was the key. Their inquiry centered on whether he was a dupe, a perpetrator, or both. They couldn’t help noticing an eerie similarity between Verson’s experience with the fake Renoir...
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As soon as she unloaded the fake Renoir, Sonia began pestering Elayne and Verson about another deal that she could midwife. According to her, two more paintings were available. One was the work of the nineteenth-century French painter Jean-Baptiste...
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The file goes into detail about how the FBI thought Verson fit into the pattern of events that includes the theft at Elayne Galleries. It comes in the form of the rationale for the sting. After summarizing the plan to buy the two additional paintings...
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“I got a call about two years after the theft at Elayne Galleries,” says Minneapolis attorney Joe Friedberg. “The guy wouldn’t identify himself or say where he was calling from, but he asked if I was willing to negotiate with the insurers for the return of that art work. The conversation was such that if I didn’t do...
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The Minneapolis informant is a proponent of the Verson-as-wannabe-gangster theory. He claims that Verson paid for his indiscretions with his life. According to him, Verson liked hanging around with tough guys, and he told some well-known Minneapolis criminals about the opportunity at Elayne Galleries. Verson wanted...
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The tipster who had fingered an underworld figure for the Minneapolis police and the FBI three weeks following the theft practically made a pest of himself thereafter. He contacted the FBI many times six months later, named the perpetrators again, and said he didn’t know whether the paintings were still...
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By the late 1980s Elayne had begun turning gallery affairs over to her daughter, but it was a drawn-out process. She never informed Bonnie that Home Insurance had paid a $34,500 claim for the stolen Date Paintings in 1978. “I wasn’t much involved when the payment came,” Bonnie...
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Major art thefts are redolent of the era in which they take place. The 1940s belong to the Nazis, who looted the great museums and homes of Europe with maniacal zeal, especially art belonging to Jews. More than twenty thousand stolen pieces were sent to Germany during World War II. Much of it was bound for...
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According to the seven-percent black market formula, the eighteen paintings Cahill stole could have netted him about $7 million. In fact, he managed to sell only one, and whatever it netted (the investigators never found out), it cost him far more. In 1987, Cahill tried to do business with a Dutch con man who had...
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The Belgian diamond dealer’s organization had been infiltrated by Scotland Yard, so the details of the agreement he and Cahill struck were known to investigators. They even drew up an elaborate chart showing the flow of stolen art and money to and from various locales—Dublin, Antigua...
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The evidence suggests that the stolen paintings, minus the “Renoir,” which has never surfaced again, made their way to Lisbon. After failing to unload them there, the organized crime figures who controlled them must have concluded that if they were to realize anything at all on their sale, the paintings had...
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Palma appeared to be an honest broker. He said he represented the man who purchased five of the Rockwells from a Brazilian immigration official, among them the two that belonged to the gallery. He admitted that he expected to collect some money if a deal could be arranged, but it would come from the seller. There was no specific price...
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Shortly before Christmas 1998, around the time that Bonnie and Gary Lindberg were finalizing plans to go to Rio, a man came into an art gallery in Philadelphia with two Norman Rockwell paintings. He wanted them authenticated, appraised, and possibly sold.
“I can’t remember his name or what he looked like—it’s been such a long...
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In December 1998, a package wrapped in brown paper arrived at Elayne Galleries.
“I was so excited I didn’t take any notice of how it had been shipped,” says Bonnie. “I think it entered the United States via international mail, and was forwarded to us in the parcel...
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Special Agent Wittman watched a tape of the series a few weeks later. The Twin Cities audience had seen a heartwarming tale of pluck and perseverance, but what Wittman saw was a public relations disaster for the FBI. Part one went into detail about the Lindbergs’ efforts and introduced Bonnie as the lead detective on a case...
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The final act for Bonnie Lindberg had come three years earlier. In the spring of 1999, she had plans to feature the well-traveled Date Paintings in a Welcome Home show at Elayne Galleries. The timing couldn’t have been better. Rockwell’s star was on the rise. The twenty-year odyssey of the paintings had been...
Notes on Sources
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This book relies heavily on the recollections of Bonnie and Gary Lindberg, who are quoted liberally in the text. Many thanks to them, and to Minneapolis attorney Thomas Bauer, who opened some doors that might have remained closed...
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Page Count: 192
Illustrations: 12 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2013