WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — The anonymous voice on the phone told Dean Golemis to drive west on Interstate 80.
Golemis, a private investigator and former Rockland County Sheriff's Office detective, was hunting for Norman Rockwell's Sport, a painting of a fisherman wearing a yellow jacket and sitting in a rowboat that appeared on the April 1939 cover of The Saturday Evening Post.
The illustration, painted during Rockwell's last months in New Rochelle, N.Y., had been stolen from a Queens, N.Y., storage facility in September after being sold at auction months earlier for just more than $1 million.
The private eye started driving Sunday. His goal was getting the painting back undamaged — with no questions asked.
"When I got into my car, all I knew was I was heading west on Interstate 80," Golemis said Thursday. "As I was driving, they called me back, kept calling me and calling," he said of his tipsters. "I ended up in Ohio."
After driving for hours on his 500-mile trip, Golemis said he eventually met up with the voice on the telephone who gave him Rockwell's painting — still in its storage wrapping.
Golemis, who runs Global Security and Investigative Services in Pearl River, N.Y., said he was not a liberty to discuss whom he met, his client, details of the investigation or the recovery of the artwork. He had been working tangentially with the New York City Police Department detectives since taking the case in October, but he developed his own leads and contacts.
"It came down to good old-fashion police work, interviewing people, interviewing people," Golemis said. "It was a very difficult case. I got some lucky breaks."
Golemis has been a private investigator for six years. He retired in 2013 as a sheriff's detective after 16 years in Rockland. He previously spent four years with the New York Police Department.
"I've had some high-value cases for some influential clients," Golemis said. "This is the most high-profile case."
Rockwell lived in New Rochelle for 25 years where he painted magazine covers in his studio between 1919 and 1939, the year he left the city for Arlington, Vt.
The famed illustrator dropped out of high school at age 16 in 1911.
The Saturday Evening Post, then the country's leading weekly periodical, often featured Rockwell's work, including the baseball-themed Rookie and other paintings of everyday American life.
The model for Sport was Fred Hildebrandt, a friend and fellow illustrator who worked as Rockwell's studio assistant in New Rochelle, said Jeremy Clowe, manager of media services for the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.
Clowe said the active illustration community drew Rockwell to New Rochelle, where he created many of his iconic works.
Clowe said Hildebrandt, an avid fisherman, posed for Sport in a yellow slicker sitting in a boat in the rain. He has an upside-down pipe stuck in his mouth.
"This was a fairly humorous honor to his fisherman-friend and fellow artist," Clowe said.
Sport was part of a private collection in Birmingham, Ala., until it sold on May 22 at Sotheby's in New York City. The buyer had the piece stored at Welpak Art Moving and Storage in Queens.
Welpak confirmed the painting had been recovered but referred questions to attorney Jean Gardner, who didn't return a call for comment. In a news release, Welpak thanked Golemis and the NYPD for their efforts to recover the artwork.
Clowe said he was not surprised at the price paid for Rockwell's work by private collectors. The museum has the world's largest collection of Rockwell's work, Clowe said. Rockwell spent the last 25 years of his life in Stockbridge.
"His works are setting records at auctions," Clowe said. "There is demand for the work. I am glad they recovered the painting. His works on everyday scenes are very popular."