MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Thirty-five years later, the tale of two people trying to solve the biggest art heist in Minnesota history is being chronicled in a new book.
Organized crime is involved in almost all major art heists, including one in Minnesota 35 years ago.
In 1978, seven Rockwells and a Renoir disappeared from the Elayne Gallery in St. Louis Park despite an armed guard and a supposedly theft-proof security system.
Bonnie Lindberg’s parents owned the gallery and two Rockwells that had been used to make a cover for the Saturday Evening Post.
“We own this gallery in St. Louis Park, Minn., and you just don’t expect to be involved in a story like this,” Lindberg said.
It was a high-profile case, so tips came from everywhere. One tip even accused her mother, but the FBI tore up the ceiling of the gallery looking for the paintings and found nothing.
Over the next 20 years, the tips kept coming, and Lindberg kept listening.
“I would get excited, and then nothing would happen. Then, someone else would call and I would get excited,” Lindberg said.
Finally, in 1999, a tip led her to Brazil where a man, who had unwittingly bought the stolen Rockwells, agreed to sell both of them back to her — for $20,000 apiece.
Twin Cities crime writer Bruce Rubenstein picked up the story many years later for a magazine article and discovered enough crazy characters to fill a book. So, he decided to write one.
Five-hundred pages of blacked-out FBI documents provided the clues. Rubenstein’s contacts in the criminal world helped fill in the blanks.
“This is what got filled in,” Rubenstein said, pointing at an FBI document, “about the fraud ring in Miami and the fake Renoir.”
It turns out the Renoir was forged, and the key to the case.
A mysterious stewardess named Sonya, who flew for Northwest and had ties to the mob, helped a colorful Minnesotan, named Buddy Verson, buy it in Miami.
Verson didn’t know it was fake and the mobsters never imagined he’d try to show it in a gallery in St. Louis Park.
“But they were afraid that somebody at that opening would spot that painting for what it was and blow their cover,” Rubenstein said.
So when the crooks came to steal the fake Renoir, they saw an opportunity and took the Rockwells, too.
Rubenstein’s research led him to that underworld so often associated with art crime: three Minnesotans who’d been seen casing the gallery before the heist and a Chicago mobster.
One is dead, and the FBI has lost interest in the others. But Lindberg doesn’t seem to mind.
“Well, a big relief, because it’s now finished,” Lindberg said. “I now have closure on it.”
Lindberg closed the gallery and now appraises paintings, antiques and other valuables.
Rubenstein’s book, The Rockwell Heist, is in stores and on Amazon.