Stolen 1778 bust of Ben Franklin, worth $3 million, in bag on bus

PHILADELPHIA Mon Sep 24, 2012 6:43pm EDT

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PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Ben Franklin is back home, a little worse for the wear after a trip on a bus.

A bust valued at $3 million by its owner of the famous founding father was returned to the Philadelphia region after authorities arrested a former cleaning woman who they said was carrying the stolen sculpture in a bag on a bus in Maryland.

The bust's owner, George D'Angelo, was relieved to hear authorities had recovered his family's heirloom, a 1778 plaster of Paris creation by French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, which was stolen from his home in August.

"This is a great treasure," D'Angelo, 85, who lives in the upscale suburbs of Philadelphia, told Reuters on Monday.

"The bust, which I feel is so magnificent, actually belongs to all of us... It is a treasure of the United States of America," D'Angelo said. He listed its value at $3 million on an FBI affidavit.

It was recovered as Andrea Lawton, who was fired by the cleaning company that serviced D'Angelo's home, stepped off a bus in Elkton, Maryland, on Friday, authorities said. Law enforcement officials said she had the icon in a bag.

Lawton was charged with illegally transporting the stolen bust across state lines, a federal offense, authorities said.

D'Angelo said he was told that the bust is now cracked across the chest, and he hopes it can be restored.

According to an FBI affidavit, Lawton was fired on August 21 and three days later employees of the cleaning company arrived at the house and saw her driving off in an SUV. Once inside the home, the employees noticed the bust was not on its pedestal.

The FBI traced Lawton to Alabama and, after learning she was riding a bus back north, arrested her in Maryland on Friday. Lawton, currently in custody, was due in court on Wednesday for a bail hearing.

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Cynthia Osterman)

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