At a Masonic meeting in Paris shortly after arriving in 1776 to work as an ambassador, Ben Franklin began to travel in the same circles as celebrated French artist Jean-Antoine Houdon, considered France’s foremost sculptor at the time. Houdon, like most of his countrymen, was taken by the charismatic American, and decided to make a bust of him.
According to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, “Houdon’s accomplishment is the more remarkable in that Franklin did not sit for the sculptor—the men did not meet formally until 1783. Presumably Houdon drew upon his experience of seeing Franklin at events such as meetings of the Masonic lodge to which they both belonged.”
The bust of Franklin debuted at the French Royal Academy exhibition in 1789, and is currently on exhibit at the Louvre. Houdon went on to make several copies of his bust, and the three remaining ones of Franklin are estimated to be worth roughly $3 million. Two marble copies are found at the Art Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and there is a plaster one that, on August 24th of this year, you might have found resting in a Dumpster at an apartment complex in the Mantua section of Philadelphia.
The bust in question had previously resided in the Bryn Mawr home of 85-year-old George D’Angelo, a lawyer in Center City. And how did he get his hands on such a unique piece? “It’s been in the family for many, many years.”
“It was in the drawing room on a pedestal,” says D’Angelo. That is, until the night of August 24th, when 46-year-old Andrea Lawton and an accomplice made their way to D’Angelo’s home, where Lawton had worked as a housekeeper until she’d been fired three days prior by the cleaning company that serviced D’Angelo’s home. The reason for stealing the piece, she later told police, was anger at being fired. She wanted to get the woman who fired her in trouble.
Lawton’s still unknown accomplice kicked in an air conditioner, climbed into the house, and grabbed Ben’s head. He was returning for the pedestal (apparently Lawton wanted to display the piece tastefully) when a car pulled into the driveway. Lawton and this man of mystery took off in what Lawton described as a “dark red SUV. Maybe a Suzuki or something.” Unfortunately for the former maid, the people in the car saw Lawton make her getaway, and she was quickly seen as the prime suspect.
Lawton testified to what happened next at a preliminary hearing this past Thursday.
“He dropped me off at 57th and Webster. He gave me a sheet, and I wrapped Ben up. In the area of 31st and 32nd in Mantua, near Parrish, there is an apartment building. I put the statue in a Dumpster, then got it early Saturday.”
D’Angelo, who hadn’t thought to check the Dumpsters of Mantua, wondered where his family heirloom was when he returned home that night.
“The police were there, and since they knew who it was, she was identified almost immediately, and the police were confident they would be able to get it back.”
But after taking a call from police and being told to turn herself in, the criminal mastermind decided to hit the road.
Again from the deposition: “I called my cousin in Alabama and told her that I was coming to visit. She sent me a bus ticket. I put the statue in a big trunk and took him with me. I left Sunday … Got to Alabama. I left the trunk in the carport.”
Let’s keep in mind that this was a sculpture of Ben Franklin made by a man considered to be one of the foremost sculptors in French history. And less than two months ago, one of his masterpieces was checked luggage on a Greyhound, cruising down the Interstate toward Mobile, Alabama, two days after spending a night in a West Philly Dumpster.
It’s a long bus trip from Philadelphia to Mobile, roughly 26 hours, according to Greyhound’s website (web fare is $178.20, if you’d like to visit). That’s a long time for Ben’s bust to ride the bus, and for the thief to plot her next move. An appraisal of her newfound masterpiece perhaps?
“I did think about getting it appraised, but I never did,” she said to the police. With all the friends in the art appraisal world Lawton surely had in Mobile, it’s a wonder she didn’t.
You have to wonder if, after a month, Lawton’s cousin tired of “company.” As Franklin famously said, “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.” Regardless, in late September, Lawton and Ben headed back North. And when she stepped off the bus in Elkton, Maryland, with her prized bust in tow, police were waiting.
The good news was that the bust was recovered. The bad news was that it had a cracked breastplate. (Though when you consider that a plaster of paris bust got thrown in a Dumpster, rode on Greyhound, and sat outside in a carport, it’s a miracle the damage wasn’t more severe.)
“There’s damage to it, but the conservationists tell me it can be restored,” says Mr. D’Angelo. He added, “It’s bizarre for someone to take a portrait bust of Benjamin Franklin. It’s not like it’s something you can sell on eBay. The whole thing is just bizarre.”