40-year-old theft vexes FBI: $1M Rockwell gone from Cherry Hill

The weary farmboy who once graced the cover of the Saturday Evening Post might sleep forever, but not the FBI.

On Thursday - 40 years since Norman Rockwell's painting Taking a Break was stolen from a Cherry Hill home - the bureau's Art Crime Team issued a new appeal for any information related to the theft.

It was one of several items taken during a June 30, 1976, break-in at the home of Robert and Teresa Grant, according to the FBI. The bureau and the Cherry Hill Police Department say they are still seeking leads,

Also known as Lazybones, the 25-by-28-inch oil was featured on the cover of the Sept. 6, 1919, issue. It depicts a stocky teenage boy dozing by the trunk of a tree. A hoe lies between his legs, with a straw hat next to him, and a small dog rests his head in his lap.

The bureau's reminder "was pegged to the 40th anniversary," said Carrie Adamowski, spokeswoman for its Philadelphia office. "We just thought we'd take the opportunity to let people know the painting is still missing."

The painting has been entered in the FBI's National Stolen Art File and Interpol's Stolen Works of Art Database.

While not an especially famous work by the highly prolific Rockwell, who died in 1978, the image was popular enough to be rendered as a small porcelain figurine by ceramist Dave Grossman in the 1970s. Copies are available on eBay at prices ranging from about $10 to $53, with one of the sellers in England.

"It's certainly not in the same league as the family gathered for Thanksgiving or the cop sitting on a stool with the kid running away from home," said Robert Bazin, who investigated art theft for the FBI in the 1980s and '90s.

"Those are the images you think of when you hear the name Norman Rockwell," said Bazin. "But it is a Norman Rockwell. So in my humble opinion, it's probably worth around $1 million."

Bazin, now retired, said the Grants told investigators that the painting once belonged to a Haddonfield family whose home the legendary pool player Willie Mosconi of Philadelphia sometimes visited.

Robert Grant was a friend of the family and sometimes played pool or pocket billiards at the house.

"And one time" in the early 1950s, "he accidentally put a pool cue through the painting," Bazin said. "And the owner told him, 'You break it, you buy it.' So he paid $75 for it and took it home."

For more than two decades, it hung in the foyer of the Grant home on Harrowgate Drive in the Fox Hollow section, until a thief or thieves broke in. They also took a color TV and Grant's silver coin collection, which he kept in a safe.

The Grants discovered the theft on July 2, 1976, when they returned home from a stay in Ocean City. The burglars had entered through a basement window, activating an alarm. Cherry Hill police responded but found nothing amiss.

"I still play with different theories" of why it was stolen, said Bazin, who once recovered a Rodin sculpture stolen at gunpoint from the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia.

"I think somebody knew this painting was at the Grants' home and said to whoever stole it, 'I'll give you 100 bucks if you go in and get it.' " He said he thinks whoever acquired it did not sell it but "still has it on a wall."

Robert and Teresa Grant are deceased, and their children were not available for comment Thursday. In 2013 they told the Inquirer that their parents had been very fond of Rockwell's sleeping boy.

"It was the family painting," said son, John Grant, of Egg Harbor Township, N.J.

Their insurance company paid them $15,000 for the loss.

Anyone with information on the painting's theft or current location may contact the FBI at 215-418-4000, or submit an online tip at tips.fbi.gov. Tipsters can remain anonymous.

doreilly@phillynews.com 856-779-3841