Stolen Rockwell painting returned to N.J. owners 40 years after theft

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An original painting by Normal Rockwell — stolen from a home in Cherry Hill 40 years ago — was returned Friday morning.

The FBI recovered the long-lost painting due, in part, to damage it sustained during a game of pool 63 years ago.

In 1954, Robert Grant of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, was playing pool at a friend.s house when he lost control of his stick, piercing a nearby painting. As consolation, he bought the damaged picture for $75.

It was an original Norman Rockwell, painted in 1919 for the Saturday Evening Post. “Taking a Break (Lazybones)” depicts a farmboy taking a nap against a tree trunk. His snoozing dog rests against his hip.

The dog resembled the Grant family’s beagle, Heidi.

“My father adored it, we loved it,” said Susan Murta, Grant’s daughter. “It was in every picture we took, in the background. He loved it, so we did too.”

In 1976, a burglar broke in and stole the painting, along with the TV and a coin collection. The still-unidentified thief immediately sold the painting to an antiques dealer for a few hundred dollars.

Because the case is still under investigation, acting U.S. Attorney Louis Lappen would not identify the dealer. But he said the dealer believed the painting was a copy and thought he could resell it for a small profit.

“Tried to sell it. Couldn’t sell it,” said Lappen. “His wife, who liked Rockwells, liked the painting and thought it would look nice in the kitchen. So they put it up in the kitchen.”

Cut to four decades later, 2016, when media reports came out on the 40th anniversary of the cold case. That antiques dealer recognized the painting in the stories, realized he had the original, and promptly turned it in.

The damage done by the pool cue in 1954 — the little tear in the lower left corner — was key to cracking the case.

“It helped us realize we were on the right track,” said FBI special agent Jake Archer. “We had to have it professionally attributed to Rockwell, but it was a major clue.”

It’s impossible to say what the painting is worth, but similar Rockwells have been recently auctioned for well over $1 million. The distinctive damage done to this painting may actually increase its value.

“The damage is part of the story. It’s part of the provenance. It’s how the FBI identified it. It’s how the family connects to the piece,” said Martin Mahoney, curator of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Massachusetts. “In some ways, it adds a certain value to it.”

Robert Grant, and the case of the wild pool cue, has become an indelible part of “Taking a Break.” Whenever the family sees that telltale hole in the canvas, they think of their father, or grandfather, and how much he loved the painting.

“We had six kids. I think he liked that painting better than the kids, some days,” said Murta.

The painting will be moved to storage while the children of Robert Grant decide what to do with it.

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