Philadelphia woman pleads guilty to $3M art theft

The stolen bust of Ben Franklin, by Jean-Antoine Houdon.
The stolen bust of Ben Franklin, by Jean-Antoine Houdon.
Posted: April 24, 2013

A Philadelphia woman pleaded guilty Monday in Montgomery County Court to taking a $3 million bust of Benjamin Franklin from a Bryn Mawr home where she worked as a house cleaner.

The bust, by the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, was recovered, but had been damaged in the theft.

Andrea Lawton, 47, pleaded in Judge Carolyn Tornetta Carluccio's courtroom to one count of burglary and one count of criminal conspiracy to commit burglary, at what was supposed to be the beginning of her trial on those charges.

She faces up to 20 years in prison for each charge, terms that could run end-to-end for a maximum sentence of 40 years. She is scheduled for sentencing in federal court May 20. She pleaded guilty there in December to interstate transportation of stolen property. Her sentencing on the county charges likely will take place after the federal sentencing.

Kevin Steele, Montgomery County first assistant district attorney, said he planned to seek the maximum sentence.

"This is a priceless work of art," he said. "He [the owner] is incredibly hurt by what has occurred here."

The bust, sculpted in 1778 while Franklin was still alive, was taken Aug. 24 from the Bryn Mawr home of lawyer George A. D'Angelo. Lawton worked there as an employee of a cleaning service. The bust was recovered nearly a month later when Lawton stepped off a Greyhound bus in Elkton, Md., while traveling under an alias in an attempt to sell the stolen property.

Authorities found the 25-pound bust, newly cracked through the breast plate, in luggage. The bust is being repaired in a New York City museum.

Steele said Lawton had two motives - to make money by selling the bust and to embarrass the owner of the cleaning service who had just fired her.

"I was fired by Ruth and I was mad," she said, according to court documents. "I was told it was valuable and I wanted to get Ruth fired. But I did not know how valuable until I saw the news."

Defense attorney Michael A. John, said Lawton pleaded guilty because, "She's taking responsibility for the crime. . . . She's remorseful."

Also taken from D'Angelo's house was a shadowbox that held a photo of composer Victor Herbert with his handwritten notes on a border around it, plus one of his conductor's batons. Those items remain missing.

Lawton told authorities that a young man, whose name she didn't give, helped with the burglary, and that he is the one who has the Herbert collectibles, which have an estimated worth of $80,000.


Contact Carolyn Davis at 610-313-8109, cdavis@phillynews.com, or @carolyntweets on Twitter.

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