Photo courtesy of Bruce Mowday
Stark, rural and softly rolling, the Wyeth estate in Chadds Ford remains steeped in the family ethos. Raw in the winter, it’s dotted with the rustic 19th-century accoutrements of which Andrew Wyeth was so fond—and 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. Former newspaperman turned nonfiction author Bruce Mowday chronicles the art heist gone wrong in his new book Stealing Wyeth (Barricade Books, 144 pages), due out this month.
MLT: How did the attempted burglary go down?
BM: 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-$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.”
MLT: Who else was involved?
BM: He tapped Frank Matherly, a local criminal, and William Porter, another local guy who’d 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 had a code, though: He wouldn’t steal from his own clients. Porter came up from Tennessee; Matherly was the getaway driver; Porter cased the place. The plan was to steal one painting out of the Granary, where Wyeth kept his paintings.
MLT: What went wrong?
BM: Porter gets there and the alarm isn’t even set. 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 well-known artists Henry Casselli and John Crawford.
Matherly picks him up and they head back to LaCorte, who was the distribution guy.
MLT: What happened to the paintings after the heist?
BM: They moved around quite a bit. When the burglary was reported by the Wyeths, it went international, even to Interpol. [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, in trash bags buried in the ground. A few stayed in Pennsylvania. LaCorte sold some to a big-time mushroom farmer, only to later steal them back from him.
MLT: The Wyeths eventually recovered them?
BM: Yes—and Andrew himself remarked that they came back to him in better shape than some pieces do when coming back from museum loan. You need buyers before the theft. You need someone on the inside to help you, to value the pieces.
Not only were [the burglars] stuck with these very expensive pieces of art and not much to do with them, but some of the art 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.
MLT: Why tell this story?
BM: When I was a newspaperman, I covered [notorious Chester County criminal organization] the Johnston Gang. Matherly was in the gang, so that’s how I already knew of him—and it just was interesting.
Plus, for me, I’m a huge fan of the Brandywine River Museum of Art. When those two things intersected, I knew it was a story I had to write.