Tevlin: Elayne’s Gallery art heist is the subject of Rubenstein’s new book

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 10, 2013 - 10:04 PM

What do you get when you combine a St. Louis Park fine art gallery, a gang of burglars, some Chicago wiseguys, an exotic, coke-snorting Northwest Airlines flight attendant, a part-time magician and his charismatic wife and daughter?

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Bonnie Lindberg right show Jim and Joyce Vaughan of Northfield a Norm Rockwell print at Elayne's Gallery in St. Louis Park, 7/11/01. Bonnie's mother Elayne Lindberg owned the gallery before her daughter.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune file

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What do you get when you combine a St. Louis Park fine art gallery, a gang of burglars, some Chicago wiseguys, an exotic, coke-snorting Northwest Airlines flight attendant, a part-time magician and his charismatic wife and daughter?

You get a scene from the Twin ­Cities, circa 1978. It doesn’t exactly sound like a Norman Rockwell painting, does it?

Speaking of which, add to the plot seven stolen Rockwell paintings and a fake Renoir.

Local journalist Bruce Rubenstein knew what he had: a great story.

His book, “The Rockwell Heist,” (Borealis Books) is due out this week. It tells the little-known tale of Minnesota’s largest art theft, at Elayne’s Gallery in St. Louis Park, and the subsequent 20-year quest to recover the art.

The paintings, valued at more than $500,000, were stolen from the now-closed Elayne’s on Feb. 16, 1978. Everyone suspected some shady-looking men who appeared to case the joint the day before, but no one was ever charged in the crime.

Rubenstein, 74, has covered murder and mayhem in the state since the 1980s for publications such as Mpls/St. Paul and Minnesota Monthly magazines and City Pages.

The dogged investigative reporter, who splits his time between the Twin Cities and an off-the-grid home in the Arizona desert, has always been drawn to the dark side. His work has caused him to bump up against lawmen, bad actors and cons, in places like Spanky’s and the infamous Moby Dick’s.

Keeping that kind of company paid off when he got the book deal after writing part of the story for Minnesota Monthly three years ago.

To find out who did it, and how, Rubenstein interviewed perhaps a hundred people. Bonnie Lindberg, daughter of owner Elayne Lindberg, turned over thousands of pages of FBI documents to assist Rubenstein’s hunt.

“I interviewed former cops, on and off the record, and former attorneys, on and off the record,” said Rubenstein. “And I interviewed bad guys. Those were off the record.”

There was too much research to keep at home, so Rubenstein worked from a borrowed office.

In the months after the heist, the FBI pursued the case with some vigor. They thought it looked like an inside job and had several suspects, including owner Elayne Lindberg and another man who owned the fake Renoir.

One of the plot lines was that the mob wanted to retrieve the fake Renoir, and offered burglars the Rockwells as the fee.

“The FBI didn’t care about the paintings, they wanted to get inside the Miami mob and New York mob,” Rubenstein said. The FBI’s zeal died away before long, but Bonnie Lindberg’s didn’t.

Finally, a break in the case

Partly because their mother was an early suspect (which proved false), children Bonnie and Gary followed clues and odd tips for two decades before what the book’s news release calls “the final dramatic resolution.” (I won’t spoil it).

The strange tale winds through the world of international art theft, from Miami to Europe to South America, where the Lindbergs traveled to try to buy the paintings back.

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