$3M Ben Franklin bust is back; housekeeper arrested

The porcelain bust of Benjamin Franklin dates to the 18th century. It was taken from a lawyer's home in Montco.
The porcelain bust of Benjamin Franklin dates to the 18th century. It was taken from a lawyer's home in Montco.

Bust is damaged but safe

Posted: September 26, 2012

The owner of a stolen portrait bust of Benjamin Franklin valued at $3 million said Monday that he was relieved that the art treasure had been recovered, but was anxious to know how badly it was damaged by the thief.

George A. D'Angelo said he "stopped breathing" when he was told the porcelain object stolen Aug. 24 from his Bryn Mawr home had been recovered in Elkton, Md., with a cracked breastplate.

The FBI is holding the piece for fingerprints, so he has yet to see it. Once "Ben is back," D'Angelo said, he will hire a restoration expert.

"I think it can be repaired," said D'Angelo, 85, a Philadelphia lawyer. "I hope so. It would be ghastly if it can't."

Andrea Lawton, 46, of Philadelphia and Mobile, Ala., was arrested Friday as she got off a bus in Elkton. She was carrying the bust in a gunny sack, D'Angelo said.

Lawton, also known as Andrea Gresham, was charged with theft, fraud, and interstate transportation of stolen property, according to papers filed in federal court in Philadelphia.

She was employed briefly last summer as a cleaning woman in D'Angelo's home. The bust sat on a pedestal in the drawing room.

Lawton had been told not to touch the bust and that it was "extremely valuable," according to an affidavit of probable cause accompanying the arrest warrant.

Three days before the theft, the cleaning company fired Lawton. Witnesses told police she sped away from the D'Angelo home in a maroon Chevrolet Tahoe. She allegedly had broken in by removing an air-conditioning unit.

The 25-pound, 28-inch-high bust was made in 1778 by Jean-Antoine Houdon while Franklin was visiting Paris. There are only three others like it in existence.

A framed case containing a picture of Victor Herbert, a conductor's baton, an autograph, and a list of his music - valued at $80,000 - was also gone. D'Angelo said police told him that piece was still missing.

"It's a bizarre story," D'Angelo said. "She said she doesn't know anything about Victor Herbert" and may have disposed of the picture at a secondhand shop without realizing its value.

Police and the FBI traced the address of Lawton, who has four burglary convictions, to Hazelhurst Street in Philadelphia, but when she didn't return there, the FBI tracked her to Mobile, her hometown.

On Sept. 19, a witness told the FBI that Lawton "still had possession of the bust, and that she intended to transport it outside of Alabama in order to sell it on the black market."

"It's like stealing Venus de Milo from the Louvre," said D'Angelo. "What in heaven's name would you think she was going to do with it?"

D'Angelo said he was worried the brass framework supporting the porcelain head was broken during the bust's adventure, in addition to the crack in the breastplate.

The FBI's Philadelphia public affairs supervisor, J.J. Klaver, declined to answer questions other than to say Lawton was under arrest and the bust had been recovered.

Members of the Lower Merion Police Department and the Maryland state police assisted the FBI on the case.

A detention hearing for Lawton in federal court in Philadelphia is to be scheduled for this week.


Contact Bonnie L. Cook at 610-313-8232 or bcook@phillynews.com.

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