Masterpiece Theatre

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

Jonathan Kodner clutched his chest when he laid eyes on a picture of the very Rothko he sold to the Chicago gallery one year earlier.

"My father's good name!" he screamed.

Biron Valier III would soon be revealed as an architect of a $4 million art heist.

A 1938 Helen Frankenthaler that Kodner Gallery purchased from Valier.
A 1938 Helen Frankenthaler that Kodner Gallery purchased from Valier.
Valier: voted Country Day School's "class clown" in 1986.
Valier: voted Country Day School's "class clown" in 1986.

"There's always the desire of collectors to have material that other people don't have. One-of-a-kind items are special," imparts Bob Wittman, a Philadelphia-based special agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. "And that's where collectors sometimes get a larcenous attitude. They really want to have those pieces. They decide they can't live without them."

Today, an estimated $8 billion worth of art is missing worldwide. Hoping to catch more culprits who've managed to manipulate the hush-hush world of art-buying, the FBI last year formed a special art-crime team.

"The art industry is one of the largest unregulated industries in the U.S.," Wittman explains. He adds that new problems will arise when looted treasures from Iraq reach American shores.

Wittman says the St. Louis case was extremely unusual because of the money and number of stolen artworks involved. "And the fact that these paintings had gone all over the country — even the world."

There seems little chance that Donald Rasch would have ever crossed paths with Biron Valier, the rich kid reared at the Town & Country Racquet Club who went on to collect a master's in fine arts from New York City's Pratt Institute.

"I grew up poor in East St. Louis," reflects the 44-year-old Rasch, a short, skinny chap with jet-black hair and arresting aquamarine eyes. "My father was a cop, and my mother worked in cosmetics at the Famous-Barr in downtown St. Louis."

"During the weekends my father worked three jobs, one as a security guard at a warehouse behind the Science Center," Rasch goes on. "I would watch the lot while he slept. I had a .38 on me, and a security guard's outfit, and our German shepherd, King, stayed with me. I was ten, and we busted a couple guys."

Rasch says his father would have loved him to be a cop, but Rasch had other ideas. "I wanted to be a zoologist," he says. As far as becoming an artist, "I had no choice. It just happened."

Long known in the local art world as "Downtown Don," an aging "loft rat" who squatted in spaces that doubled as his studio, Rasch has yet to make a buck from his paintings.

"One time we found a hole in the wall next to his door," recalls an ex-landlord, Stanley Palmer. "He must have locked himself out, and smashed a hole through the drywall to get back in. We had reason to look inside, and the place was a wreck. Garbage, beer cans, food debris — you name it."

"Don was a slob," seconds Ellsworth Lank, Rasch's former employer at Fine Arts Express, a high-end art-transport and -storage company. "And he had an attitude problem, a chip on his shoulder, [thought] that he was smarter than anybody."

Lank and others say alcohol accounted for much of Rasch's problem. "I am a drunk," Rasch admits. "But people who really know me, like me."

Many refer to Rasch as a personable, charismatic guy, though they concede that they never really knew when he was telling the truth. "He had a history of saying things, not as they are, but as he'd like them to be," says Palmer.

Rasch boasted wildly of his military prowess and recently told acquaintances that he was shipping off to fight in Iraq. (He says he served in the Illinois National Guard in the 1980s.)

When Rasch the bachelor met Biron Valier — father of two and a diminutive, roly-poly fellow of 225 pounds — the duo became buddies, Rasch says. It was the late 1990s, and the men worked moving and installing exhibits at Clayton's R. Duane Reed Gallery.

"Art handling is a business that attracts a lot of people who are not terribly ambitious," says one former museum shipping manager who worked with Valier. "It's for low-aspiring people, lumpen beatniks. And Biron always struck me as that: an old-time hippie, very easygoing. He was sweet-natured, a family man, an all-around good Joe."

Valier and Rasch, throughout their working lives, held similar low-paying jobs at varied galleries and museums around town. Rasch needed a job and, with no trust fund at his disposal, so did Valier.

In the summer of 2000, Valier became a salesman at Fine Arts Express, once the darling of its small, competitive industry. FAE was based in Boston but had a local office in an unmarked building on Grandel Square. The local manager, Kim Humphries, hired Rasch as an art handler at Valier's behest.

Ask ex-colleagues if Rasch and Valier were pals and the answer is, unfailingly, "I hardly think so."

Rasch begs to differ. The artist says other FAE workers sneered at Valier, calling him "that rich kid" under their breath. "I knew [Biron's] mommy and daddy had money, but I didn't care," Rasch contends. "Biron and I were so close that he was never condescending to me."

The men liked to joke about politics and gossip about the Cardinals, Rasch says, and Rasch admired Valier's "Oscar-Wilde wit" and "Falstaffian" jolliness.

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