Masterpiece Theatre

A passion for high-priced paintings leads to one big art ache

The fateful business deal began near a hot dog stand at Busch Stadium on a balmy June evening in 2002. Between innings, Biron Valier III and David Kodner, old acquaintances from Saint Louis Country Day School, shook hands and exchanged hellos.

Kodner remembers Valier saying, "Hey man, I'm sorry to hear about your dad passing."

Though he'd never been close to Valier, Kodner appreciated the kind thought.

The 1968 Mark Rothko that Biron Valier claimed he inherited.
The 1968 Mark Rothko that Biron Valier claimed he inherited.
The 1956 Willem de Kooning that hung for a year over the bed where Donald Rasch "made love to [his] woman." Below: a 1938 Helen Frankenthaler that Kodner Gallery purchased from Valier.
The 1956 Willem de Kooning that hung for a year over the bed where Donald Rasch "made love to [his] woman." Below: a 1938 Helen Frankenthaler that Kodner Gallery purchased from Valier.

"I'm going to be coming into some art here sometime soon, through the family," Valier continued, "and I'd love your help with it."

"You got it," Kodner replied. "Give a call anytime. We'd be glad to."

Valier appeared at Kodner Gallery in Ladue about a month later with a prized oil painting by Mark Rothko, the highly regarded modern artist who produced abstract works in broad, single-color swaths. Kodner inspected the piece and assured Valier he could sell it.

"Well, I've got a ton more at home," Kodner remembers Valier telling him. "I'd like you guys to come over and do an appraisal."

Soon afterward, David Kodner and his older brother, Jonathan, paid a visit to Valier's University City apartment. Awaiting them were more than four dozen works by such renowned artists as Robert Motherwell, Henri Matisse and Guy Buffet. With his wife, Julie, and two young children by his side, Valier claimed they inherited the collection from Julie's late grandfather.

The brothers proceeded to take the artwork back to the gallery to assess their value.

The Kodners are anything but art novices, having grown up antiquing and art-buying on weekends with their father, Martin, who opened Kodner Gallery in 1971.

"Martin was a terrific guy, very honest, straightforward, and his main specialty was twentieth-century art," notes Ronnie Greenberg, an art dealer in St. Louis and New York. "People would ask me who to go to for those kinds of pieces, and I'd recommend him. Now I recommend his sons."

Animated salesmen both, David and Jonathan took over the gallery after Martin died of cancer a month before Biron and David's encounter at the Cardinals game. The Kodner brothers were very close to their father and still choke up when they talk of their efforts to preserve his stellar reputation — a most valuable asset in the close-knit art world.

The Kodners say they never imagined what a calamitous mistake they'd make by agreeing to handle Valier's collection. After all, they figured, the 38-year-old Valier came from a prominent, long-rooted St. Louis family. Valier's grandfather, Biron Valier Sr., was once president of Old Warson Country Club, a top executive at the prestigious Gardner Advertising Co. and highly esteemed in Ladue social circles.

Biron Valier's father was an executive at Ralston-Purina, and his mother is now wed to Jerry Sincoff, the ex-chief executive officer of HOK (Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum) design firm and former president of the Saint Louis Art Museum Board of Commissioners.

David and Biron also shared the quintessential St. Louis connection: the same high school alma mater, which happens to be the private-academy-of-choice among the city's landed gentry. Valier played on the Country Day football team with FOX sports announcer and St. Louis favorite son Joe Buck. His 1986 graduating class named Valier "Most Fun to be With" and "Class Clown."

Valier, the Kodners thought, possessed just the right pedigree to inherit the kind of blue-chip art he was peddling.

In August 2002, David and Jonathan concluded that Valier's collection could net more than $1 million on the market. The 1968 Rothko, a dark, monochromatic work, was Valier's most valuable piece — then expected to fetch at least $500,000. (Today the Rothko would sell for as much as $1.5 million, says David.)

Throughout the next year, Valier permitted the Kodners to sell some of the art on consignment for him, and in July 2003 the Richard Gray Gallery in Chicago purchased the Rothko for $600,000. Valier and Kodner split the proceeds.

It was a transaction that would have thrilled the Kodners' father, who often told his sons that Rothko was one of his favorite artists. The sons recall him recounting with sadness a missed opportunity to meet the celebrated painter for lunch at New York City's Plaza Hotel on February 11, 1964. Enormous crowds, owing to the Beatles' inaugural U.S. visit, made for a failed rendezvous.

"That's why we were so proud to handle this deal," says Jonathan.

Adds David: "Dad had just died. It was almost like a gift from him."

In August — perhaps with the earnings from the Rothko sale — Biron and Julie Valier bought their first home, a modest Creve Coeur abode just two miles from both of the Kodners' residences.

"We started seeing him all over the neighborhood," says David. "We'd talk now and then, nothing buddy-buddy, but you know, 'How are things going?' 'Oh, fine.' Biron said he was taking a fishing trip, bought a new car, had a bat in the house, that kind of thing."

All seemed well enough until one Friday afternoon in October 2004, when a south-Florida private detective came on the scene. Clad in cargo shorts and wearing sunglasses, the husky gumshoe carried with him a thick black binder containing photographs of stolen art.

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