In 1978 seven Norman Rockwell paintings and a supposed Renoir, later discovered to be a forgery, were stolen from Elayne Galleries in St. Louis Park. It is still the biggest theft in Minnesota history, and no one was ever convicted of the crime. Veteran crime writer Bruce Rubenstein, author of the new book The Rockwell Heist, details the story of the theft, the investigation, and the twenty-year quest to return the art to its rightful owners. Mr. Rubenstein recently answered some questions about his new book.
Why do you write crime stories, Mr. Rubenstein?
Because I always have something to write about. At least that was my standard answer when I was a freelancer selling articles to weeklies and monthlies. There is more to it than that, of course. People who write about business, or politics, or any number of other things always have something to write about too. But with crime your story has a dramatic hinge. And people are fascinated by crime.
Why were you drawn to the story of The Rockwell Heist?
It had everything a writer could ask for–feisty, sympathetic victims, bold villains who were part of a colorful local underworld, a sexy female con artist and her quasi-sympathetic dupe, a quest to recover the stolen paintings that went on for decades with one twist after another, hundreds of pages of files and many knowledgeable people to interview. And nobody got killed. I’ve been writing about crime for a long time, and I’m pretty tired of murders. This art theft and the many attempts to trade the loot for cash or something else of value seemed good-natured compared to the kind of crimes I’ve written about in the past.
Did you manage to solve the crime?
I found out who did it. So had the investigators. Like many crimes, it went into the books unsolved, even though the perpetrators, locally based professional criminals, were identified. There simply was not enough evidence to indict them. Their names were blacked out of the files, but I got in touch with one of the FBI’s informants and he told me who they were.
Why? Did he want credit? Notoriety?
No, in fact he went to great lengths to remain anonymous. It’s a phenomenon I’ve encountered many times. There are people who like to talk. There’s nothing in it for them. Just the opposite. In many cases they are risking their lives.
You say that the value of the paintings that were stolen has mushroomed to more than $1 million by now. How much did the thieves realize?
Not much. The value of Norman Rockwell’s work waxed and waned during the time they retained possession of the art, but it didn’t really take off until long after they’d turned it over for a pretty minimal price to the mobsters who’d hired them to steal it.
So the theft was a failure, even though they got away with it?
Not at all. It accomplished exactly what the real authors of the act, Miami-based mobsters, wanted it to accomplish.
What was that?
I’m afraid you’ll have to buy the book to find out. I’ll tell you this much: the Rockwell paintings were peripheral to their real objective.
Well, if the mobsters didn’t really want the Rockwell paintings, what did they do once they got them?
They offered them for sale through a stolen art network in Europe. The evidence suggests that the paintings were bought and sold several times there, and maybe again in Argentina, before someone who was attempting to enter Brazil surrendered them to the Federal Police in Rio de Janeiro, probably in return for expedited processing of an application for Brazilian citizenship. Brazil doesn’t extradite its citizens to face charges in other countries, and wanted criminals often seek refuge there.
How much are the paintings worth now?
Rockwell’s work has undergone a critical re-evaluation in the last decade or so, and several of his paintings have sold for more than $1 million. The collective value of the Rockwells that were stolen from Elayne Galleries is conservatively $4 million.
Bruce Rubenstein will talk about his book and sign copies next Thursday, March 28, at 7 pm at Common Good Books, and Thursday, April 4, at 7 pm at Once Upon a Crime. Please click the hyperlink to the title, above, for details.