(From Left): Bruce Mowday, the author of “Stealing Wyeth,” and the book’s cover./Photos courtesy of Bruce Mowday
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The Wyeth estate, which stretches from the Brandywine Creek to Creek Road in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, is steeped in the family ethos—stark, rural and softly rolling, with valleys and farmscapes; raw in the winter and dotted with the rustic 19th-century accoutrements of which Andrew Wyeth was so fond. Not exactly the breeding ground for half-cooked criminal plots. But in 1982, a dubious crew of local career cat burglars and con men plotted their pièce de résistance—robbing Andrew Wyeth. (Spoiler alert: It didn’t go well.) Former newspaperman turned nonfiction author Bruce Mowday chronicles the heist gone wrong in “Stealing Wyeth,” which Barricade Books releases in August.
A guy named Bennie LaCorte saw that a Wyeth original was auctioned off at one of the big New York auction houses for about $600,000 to $700,000. So he rounded up his cohorts and said, “There are plenty of Wyeth originals around here. Let’s just steal one, and that’ll be our retirement fund.”
Exactly. He tapped Frank Matherly, a local criminal, and William Porter, another local guy, who had moved down to Tennessee. Porter had his own business down there installing residential security alarms; that knowledge is what helped him do over 1,500 robberies. He’s what you’d call a super burglar. He had a code, though—he wouldn’t steal from his own clients. Porter comes up from Tennessee, and the three of them plan this thing. Matherly would be the getaway driver. Porter cased the place. The plan was to steal one painting out of The Granary, where Wyeth kept his paintings. But when Porter gets there, the alarm isn’t even set. So he just walks into The Granary, and instead of one, he brings out 15 paintings and stacks them against a tree—seven by Andrew, six by his son Jamie, and two from other well-known artists, Henry Casselli and John Crawford. Matherly picks him up, and they head back to LaCorte, who was the distribution guy. They just get in the car and drive away. That’s how simple it was. But when they return, LaCorte has second thoughts. He says, “You guys wiped out the Wyeths! These people are pretty important. They know the president. Maybe we ought to take them back.” Which, of course, they don’t do.
Well, they moved around quite a bit. When the Wyeths reported the burglary, it went national, even to Interpol, as Wyeth was a widely collected artist in Europe and Asia. But the paintings never left the U.S. Some went down to Tennessee with Porter. He hid these remarkable pieces of art in derelict cars at junkyards and in trash bags buried in the ground—that’s the part of the story I can’t get over. A few of them stayed in Pennsylvania; LaCorte sold some to a big-time mushroom farmer, only to later steal them back from him. You have to watch these guys every second.
Yes, and Andrew remarked that they came back to him in better shape than some pieces do when coming back from museum loan, which is astonishing. The problem was, here’s a group of guys who went from breaking into homes, taking jewelry and guns, and selling them to whomever to entering the high-stakes world of art heist. The art world is so different, so sophisticated that even Andy said, “These guys might be good criminals, but they’re horrible art burglars.” You need buyers before the theft. You need someone on the inside to help you, to value the pieces. So, not only were they stuck with these very expensive pieces of art and not much to do with them, but some of the art that they left in The Granary was of higher value than what they took. Within a year of the crime, with the help of informants and the FBI, the paintings were back. There’s a lot to the story, of course, which the book details.
No question, “The Writing Chair.” In fact, that one also meant a lot to Andy and Betsy, and was the painting they missed the most while it was gone.
When I was a newspaperman, I covered (notorious Chester County criminal organization) the Johnston Gang. I was at the murder trials and had a lot of interaction with the police—Matherly was in the gang, actually, so that’s how I already knew of him—and it just was interesting. Plus, I’m a huge fan of the Brandywine River Museum. Going there to me feels like going home. It’s so relaxing, peaceful. It’s a wonderful place to go to just disappear from the world for a while. And when those two things intersected, I knew it was a story I had to write.