Shrewsbury home robbed in 1976
By Scott J. Croteau TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF
Three valuable paintings stolen 32 years ago in a well-executed robbery at the home of a wealthy Shrewsbury family have been recovered by the FBI and are the subject of a federal court battle to determine their rightful owner.
The paintings — valued at roughly $1 million based on recent auction prices for paintings by the three artists — somehow ended up in the hands of antiques dealer William Conley, who then gave them to his brother as collateral for a $22,000 loan about six or seven years ago.
Patrick T. Conley, a Rhode Island lawyer and prominent developer, told the Telegram & Gazette he didn’t know how his brother obtained the paintings and had no way of reaching him.
About a year ago, Patrick Conley took the paintings off his walls in his Bristol, R.I., home and had them appraised.
He learned two things. The paintings were the real deal but they were stolen.
“I had no clue,” Patrick Conley said after a well-known art dealer in Rhode Island told him the news. “When my brother did not reclaim them, I didn’t give them a great deal of thought.”
According to a July 1976 Shrewsbury police report, three masked armed robbers entered the 520 Grafton St. home of Mae Persky — wife of former Worcester Knitting Co. president Abraham S. Persky — and stole furs, rugs, silverware and three paintings.
Police and news reports at the time put the value of the stolen goods at more than $60,000.
The three paintings taken from the home were French painter Gustav Courbet’s “The Shore of Lake Geneva”; William Hamilton’s “Lady as Shepherdess”; and American impressionist Childe Hassam’s “In the Sun.”
Mrs. Persky’s insurance company at the time, Commercial Union Assurance Companies, paid $45,000 for the loss of the three paintings, according to paperwork obtained by the Telegram & Gazette.
Special Agent Gail A. Marcinkiewicz of the FBI Boston office said her agency was notified the paintings were in Rhode Island sometime last spring by the Art Loss Register — a company with offices worldwide that says it is the world’s largest private international database of lost and stolen art. The company provides free information to law enforcement agencies.
Agent Marcinkiewicz said the FBI recovered the paintings, investigated and turned the case over to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Rhode Island.
Thomas M. Connell, spokesman for the U.S. attorney in Providence, said the FBI is in possession of the paintings.
“There have not been any criminal charges filed in this matter,” he said yesterday. “I cannot speculate as to what may happen in the future.”
What is called a complaint in interpleader was filed in federal civil court in Rhode Island Tuesday by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in that state.
Three groups are claiming ownership of the paintings — the insurance company that paid out to the Persky family, the woman who was left the paintings in Mrs. Persky’s will and Patrick Conley and his wife, Gail, who last owned the paintings.
Lawyer Stephen H. Lash, who is representing the Canton-based One Beacon Insurance Group, the “successor-in-interest” to Commercial Union, did not return several phone calls yesterday. Judith Yoffie of Worcester, the woman who was left the paintings in Mrs. Persky’s will, was not available for comment. Her son, Alan Yoffie, declined to comment yesterday and referred a reporter to paperwork filed in court.
The complaint essentially says the government “does not assert a property interest in the paintings,” and is asking a judge to decide which party is the rightful owner.
The complaint said the paintings were left to William A. Yoffie and his wife, Judith. Mr. Yoffie was the president of the Worcester Knitting Co. and also the trustee of the Abraham S. Persky Charitable Trust.
Mr. Yoffie died April 2007 and left his interest in the paintings to his wife.
The theft occurred on the night of July 1, 1976, when three men broke into the Persky home, according to the Shrewsbury police report.
Mrs. Persky and Teresa Oswalt — a nurse companion — were in the home at the time, as well as a caretaker, Owen McHugh. Ms. Oswalt told police she heard breaking glass on the other side of the house and alerted the already awake Mrs. Persky.
Ms. Oswalt tried to call police, but the phone lines were dead. Police later learned the wires had been cut.
Two men, both of whom Ms. Oswalt told police she believed were armed, entered the bedroom.
“What do you want, we don’t have anything here,” Ms. Oswalt said to the men.
“What do you mean you don’t have anything? You must have some jewelry,” one of them replied before threatening to “blow her head off.”
One of the men asked where the “butler” was and then headed upstairs after Ms. Oswalt informed him there was no butler, but that the caretaker was in a bedroom upstairs. The second man stayed with the two women, the police report says. The women told police they thought they heard a third man in another part of the house, but did not see him.
Mr. McHugh reported being awakened about 11:20 p.m. by loud voices downstairs, according the report.
“He was putting on his trousers when a big guy walked into his room,” the report said. The man — about 5 feet 11 inches tall and 200 pounds — wore a black ski mask and a dark pullover sweater or sweatshirt, and brandished a “snub nose” pistol.
He told Mr. McHugh to get up and “never mind who I am and come with me,” the report states. “If you make one wrong move the women will get it.”
Once back in the downstairs bedroom, the robbers used ropes taken off the drapes to tie up Mr. McHugh’s feet and then tie his hands to his feet. They did the same to Ms. Oswalt.
They wore gloves made of a flannel material, and at least one of the robbers kept an eye on the three people at all times while the other two ransacked the house.
“I thought you said there wasn’t much stuff here. I’ve got a whole truckload,” one of the men told Mrs. Persky as they searched through the house and even took $156 in cash from Mr. McHugh’s pockets.
The robbers asked for keys to cupboards, but were told nothing was locked.
Ms. Oswalt pleaded for the ropes to be loosened. “Shut up or I’ll blow your head off,” was the response from one of the men.
One of the men paced in the bedroom during the roughly two-hour robbery. When it was over, they asked for keys to a car and taped Mrs. Persky’s legs together.
“Give us an hour to get away or we’ll come back and burn the … place to the ground,” one man said on the way out. Five to 10 minutes later Ms. Oswalt freed herself and then the others. They waited one hour before going to a neighbor’s to call police. The robbers escaped in Mr. McHugh’s maroon 1968 Ford XL.On July 3, 1976, Franklin police found the car in their town on North Union Street. It was dusted for fingerprints. Police found a book of matches and racing forms belonging to Mr. McHugh in the car.The second robber was described as 5 feet 8 and 160 pounds, and also wearing a black ski mask and black pullover. The third man wore a yellow or orange jacket and was younger than the other men. He had a high voice.
Police reports show no arrests were ever made.
According to death certificates, Mae Persky died in 1979.
How the paintings went from the hands of the robbers to William Conley is not clear. Many of the players involved in the case declined to comment yesterday.
Christopher A. Marinello, executive director and general counsel for the Art Loss Register, declined to comment when reached in his New York City office yesterday, saying the case remains open and under litigation.
Patrick Conley, the only party in the legal battle who would talk publicly, said he is an art lover, but not of the paintings he obtained from his brother.
“I didn’t like these particular ones,” he said yesterday. They were taken by the FBI, he said. “I didn’t steal them, so it didn’t bother me.”
His brother is known to deal in Boston, New York and other parts of the country, he said. The two do not have a close relationship. That was the reason Mr. Conley asked for loan collateral in the first place.
Mr. Conley said his sole reason for staying in the legal battle is he believes someone owes him the $22,000 his brother borrowed from him — that or at least a reward.
He’s been asking the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office for some kind of resolution for months, he said.
“Someone has to give me my $22,000 back,” he said. “If these are stolen and the heirs are still around they should have them. Whoever owns them deserves them.”