Flashback: That brazen Thanksgiving jewel heist at the Norton Museum

Editor’s Note: This is probably an anniversary the Norton Museum would prefer to forget.

On this Thanksgiving week 52 years ago, the museum was the center of an outrageous art theft. Call it The Norton Affair. It’s a fascinating story of culture and thievery, featuring insurance investigators, the FBI, mysterious phone calls and a character with the delicious name of Odin Eichelberger.

Did they catch the crooks? Was the art ever recovered? From our story in 2004, we’ll let the Post’s former art writer Gary Schwan tell you the tale …

A decent art theft should display the same creativity as the works being swiped.

Both panache and politesse were evident in Palm Beach County’s biggest art caper — the Nov. 23, 1965 theft from the Norton Museum of Art of priceless Oriental jade objects, and a pile of antique jewelry that belonged to the first wife of the museum’s late founder Ralph Norton.

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Stolen art is always priceless to the press, at least in the first edition. The magic figure of a million dollars was tossed around in headlines. It was finally agreed the 100 jade objects were worth about $600,000; the jewelry about $35,000.

No small sums, of course. But it was enough to return the national spotlight to this area, which hadn’t seen this much attention since the Winter White House in Palm Beach was shuttered after the assassination of President Kennedy.

The Norton Affair began shortly after 2 a.m. on Nov. 23. The press reported that up to four men tiptoed through a construction area and gained entrance to the museum through a back door. (By knocking?)

They were greeted by Odin Eichelberger, the museum’s lone caretaker/night watchman. Rather, they greeted Odin by slipping some cloth over his head, and telling him to stay put while they selected a few baubles from the museum showcases.

On their way out, the cool thieves tied up Odin, but not before spreading some newspapers on the floor so he wouldn’t get too dirty. Ah, gentlemen!

Then-museum director Robert Hunter got a phone call from police in the early morning hours.

“I went flying down there and talked my way into the building,” Hunter, who died in 2011, recalled. “They busted glass and made an awful mess. I just looked around and went home. It was at least a month before we heard anything more.”

Looking back, it’s telling that the thieves ignored fine paintings by well-known artists in favor of small objects that could be easily fenced. This doesn’t seem the M.O. of amateur mooks who might swipe whatever they could lay hands on. Professional knaves would load up on booty that could be easily unloaded.

Yet the goods weren’t unloaded. The FBI was called in, and a $10,000 reward posted. A Miami insurance executive named Richard Andrews was also on the scent, presumably contacting underworld types that he had the unfortunate honor to deal with over the years.

Months passed, filled with rumors. There was a mysterious phone call to the widow of the man who sold the jade to museum founder Ralph Norton, and a complaint from Andrews about being tailed by a creepy white car. Things are getting a little spooky, he told reporters.

Finally, in February, four months after the heist, the case cracked open like a museum’s glass case. The Feds found the loot down south in the garage of a Hollywood residence owned by one bewildered fellow named Edward Bruce. He was quickly cleared. Seems he had rented the garage to some nice folks, and assumed the trailer that contained the art was filled with household goods. He couldn’t remember the folks very well.

All but three of the stolen jade pieces were found in Hollywood. Another work was later recovered in Washington, D.C. The jewelry simply went missing for good.

“We actually got more pieces returned than were stolen,” Hunter joked, noting that several objects were broken. The Hollywood cache also inexplicably included a model of a Spanish galleon. “They asked me If I wanted it, and I said no. It wasn’t mine.”

No arrests were made, although Hunter said an FBI agent told him the bureau was pretty sure it knew whodunit.

“They told me they were convinced the theft was a buy-steal, but the buyer welshed on the thieves,” Hunter said. In other words, a buyer from the Bahamas had agreed to pay for the Norton’s jade objects, which was why the crooks went straight for them. But he backed out of the deal, and the burglars had some very hot property on their hands.

Hunter also recalled that after the jade was recovered, the Norton received a phone call offering to return the jewelry for a price, but the board wasn’t interested because the objects, while expensive, weren’t really art.

How was the jade tracked down? The Feds apparently weren’t talking, and Andrews would only say he received a few tips from people working on the case. Hunter said insurance investigators heard a few squeaks on the street.

It’s possible the insurance company simply paid to get the work back, although that’s something neither the museum nor their insurers would want made public.

The good news is that some of those stolen jades can still be seen today at the museum, under glass, but no doubt protected by more security than poor Odin Eichelberger was able to supply back in 1965.

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