Stolen, recovered, and now for sale: The saga of Cherry Hill's Norman Rockwell painting

An early Norman Rockwell painting that was stolen from a Cherry Hill home in 1976 and recovered earlier this year by the FBI has been restored and will be offered at auction Nov. 3 in Dallas.

Heritage Auctions is handling the sale; a full-page advertisement in Sunday’s New York Times included a $1 million to $1.5 million estimate for the 26-by-24-inch canvas.

“We look at an auction estimate as a marketing tool. It’s not an asking price, but a general guide,” Aviva Lehmann, director of American art for Heritage Auctions, said Thursday.

Variously known as Lazybones, Taking a Break, and Boy Asleep With Hoe, the Rockwell is being offered for sale by the six children of original owners Robert and Teresa Grant, who are deceased. Robert Grant bought Lazybones for $50 in 1954 after inadvertently damaging it with a  cue while playing pool at a friend’s house in Haddonfield.

“My father loved that painting, but we can’t cut it up and all have pieces,” said John Grant, 56, of Ocean City, N.J., who is the executor of his parents’ estate.

“Everybody wants it, but nobody wants the responsibility of insuring it or paying to have it stored,”  he said, adding, “We didn’t rush to a decision” to sell.

Said his sister Susan Murta of West Chester: “It’s bittersweet. There are six of us, and we’re all scattered. I wouldn’t say the decision was easy, but it just had to be.”

The framed painting was stolen from the foyer of the Grant home in Cherry Hill’s Fox Hollow section during a June 30, 1976, break-in. The perpetrator or perpetrators came in through a basement window while the family was vacationing at the Shore and made off with Lazybones, a Sony Trinitron color TV, and John Grant’s silver coin collection.

The case was long cold when retired FBI special agent Bob Bazin began looking into it in 2011, after his friend, retired Cape May County Chief of Detectives Jim Rybicki, had a conversation with John Grant on an Atlantic County golf course.

“There wasn’t much to go on,” said Bazin, 77. “My experience in dealing with these cases years ago was that when all else failed, I called up the press.”

Camera icon DAVID SWANSON
The stolen Norman Rockwell painting is returned to the Grant family by FBI  agents in 2017. 

I was among the journalists he contacted; a column I wrote in 2013, as well as a TV report and a follow-up story in the Inquirer and coverage in other media outlets last year, helped break the case.

Investigators said the Rockwell had been purchased by a Philadelphia-area antiques dealer for several hundred dollars not long after it was reported stolen. The dealer believed the damaged painting to be a high-quality copy.

He was unable to sell it, but his wife liked Lazybones, and the canvas hung in their kitchen until last year’s news coverage about the 40th anniversary of the theft. The dealer contacted the FBI; no charges were filed in connection with the recovery of the canvas, authorities said.

Until last week, the restored painting was on temporary display at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. It is now in a Heritage Auctions vault.

“During the summer, Lazybones was in our main gallery, in a great spot along with some other examples of early Rockwell,” Jeremy Clowe, manager of media services, said.

“Many of the early paintings may no longer exist, and people have been looking for [Lazybones] for some time,” he added. “It’s wonderful that this has been resolved … and it was fantastic for us to be able to see it.”

Lazybones was featured on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post when Rockwell was just 25, and original cover paintings like it  “are sort of a holy grail” among collectors of the artist’s work,  Lehmann said.

“A wild backstory ripped out of the headlines like this one,” she added, “seems to go with that magical mystique of Rockwell.”

Such is the mystique that Heritage even considered not having the thumb-size divot on the canvas caused by Robert Grant’s pool cue repaired. “It’s part of the story that makes it so intriguing,” said Lehmann. “But buyers want something that’s ready to hang on the wall.”

Family members visited the museum during the summer and saw the restored Lazybones for the first time. “It was a painstaking process, and it looks totally amazing,” John Grant said, adding, “I only wish my dad” could have seen it.

“Walking in and seeing it was overwhelming,” said Murta. “I got emotional.”

Bazin, who worked on the case in his spare time for six years, has become friendly with the family and plans to attend the auction in Dallas.

“I think it’s a happy ending,” he said.