FBI art image
Anna Orso/Billy Penn

FBI returns stolen $1M Norman Rockwell painting to South Jersey family

A 40-plus year old burglary, solved

FBI art image
Anna Orso/Billy Penn
anna

The 25-by-28-inch Norman Rockwell oil painting that once graced the walls of Robert and Teresa Grant’s Cherry Hill foyer has been known by a handful of names. “Taking a Break.” “Lazybones.” Our personal favorite: “Boy Asleep with Hoe.”

It’s been more than 40 years since the Rockwell painting was plucked out of their home. On July 2, 1976, the Grant family returned home from a vacation in Ocean City only to find that the Rockwell painting was stolen during a home burglary, along with a TV and a coin collection.

Though both Grants have since died, the painting was returned Friday to its rightful family — two surviving children who were 18 and 15 years old last time they saw the painting — following a decades-long investigation that ended with a random tip stemming from a news report.

“Rockwell said the story is first and last and most important,” said Michael Harpster, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Philadelphia Division. “This has everything for a Lifetime movie. It has intrigue, deception, a lot of people working and… we’re actually bringing it back out.”

The early Rockwell painting depicting a chubby little boy asleep with a dog graced the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in 1919, a little more than three years after Rockwell had painted his first cover for the Saturday Evening Post. At the time, the Post was the premier showcase for American illustrators.

But the story of how the Grants came to own the painting starts with a pool cue.

The painting was privately owned after it was completed and, while Robert Grant was visiting the owner in the mid-1950s, he pulled back a little too far on his pool cue during a game of billiards and put a hole in the Rockwell painting.

“It was a ‘you break it, you buy it’ type of moment,” Special Agent Jake Archer explained during a press conference Friday.

So Robert Grant bought the painting for $100 and hung it on a wall in his home. In 1976 after the burglary took place, Cherry Hill Police Department investigated the theft and, after some time, the case went cold and insurers reimbursed the Grant family $15,000 for the painting. (The Grant family has since paid that back, and the insurance company announced today it’s donating the funds to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.)

In 2013, the family hired a retired FBI agent to look into the case and then, last year, the FBI organized a media blitz for the 40th anniversary of the disappearance of the painting with the hopes of getting a tip or two. Forty years after its disappearance, the painting was valued at about $1 million.

What the FBI got was more than a tip or two. They heard from an antique dealer who had the painting for decades and thought it was a copy. He struggled to sell it for even a few hundred dollars, so it hung in his own kitchen for years. Noticing the punctured hole at the bottom, the dealer realized the painting hanging in his home for so long was really a stolen, original Rockwell.

The dealer, who is remaining anonymous, lived in the Philadelphia region at the time the painting was stolen, but the FBI isn’t releasing any information about that person’s identity and doesn’t believe the person was involved in the actual theft of the painting. However, Archer said the FBI was able to create a “composite” of who they think may be involved — but they aren’t divulging that information publicly just yet.

On Friday, the FBI signed over the rights of the painting to John Grant, Robert and Teresa’s son, and the other surviving members of the family who briefly thanked the FBI for their work.

“Usually we’re standing up here talking about corruption or violent crime or some serious drug organizations,” Acting U.S. Attorney of the Eastern District of PA Louis D. Lappen said. “It’s nice to be up here to just thank everyone and talk about an event that’s a feel-good event and is a piece of history.”

A piece of history — and a winding story — that even Rockwell would be proud of.