Masterpiece Theatre

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

Of course, the men also shared a love of art — apparently one so ardent that they would conspire to steal 113 masterpieces.

Says Rasch: "This was absolutely a crime of passion."

Jonathan Kodner, left, and brother David want Valier to pay $1.5 million in damages.
Jennifer Silverberg
Jonathan Kodner, left, and brother David want Valier to pay $1.5 million in damages.
Private eye James Anterio came from south Florida to crack the case.
Jennifer Silverberg
Private eye James Anterio came from south Florida to crack the case.

I got to make love to my woman under a Willem de Kooning nude," crows Donald Rasch on a recent October morning, proud of the stolen painting of a corpulent maiden that hung over his bed.

"Having this stuff in my life for just the amount of time that I did is probably worth the time that I'm going to be serving," he reasons. "Yes, I think so."

Rasch and Valier worked at FAE during a tumultuous time. The art firm's computer network was a shambles, and getting purchase orders cleared through the corporate headquarters was a nightmare. Toward the end of 2001, the Boston office, hoping to improve its financial health, notified the St. Louis operation that it would relocate to another warehouse in Bridgeton.

When employees began clearing out the office, they came across 40 wooden crates. Whom did they belong to, and what was in them? No one knew.

"The place was run by art people. You're not talking about bean counters," explains Detective Lance Harris of the Bridgeton Police Department. "The records of stored material had become rather vague over the years."

In December 2001, manager Kim Humphries instructed Rasch and another employee to pry open several crates. And when they did, to everyone's great surprise, they discovered a trove of marquee modern art. There were pieces by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Jackson Pollock, Paul Klee, Georges Braques, Wassily Kandinsky, along with Rothko and de Kooning.

"These boxes didn't even have a bill of lading. They were not in our system," insists Rasch. "The heads in Boston told us they weren't being paid for."

The artworks belonged to Diane and David Harter of Palm City, Florida. The couple spent more than 40 years building their collection. In 1994, the Harters decided to store their "beloved treasures" with FAE before moving from Nebraska to Arizona and, later, to Florida. They never purchased an insurance policy for the works, relying instead on FAE's sterling record of security.

Kim Humphries told police that in 2001 FAE repackaged and moved the Harters' boxes to Bridgeton, under his watch. Immediately after relocating, everyone was fired except Biron Valier and Sarah Stratton. Valier became general manager at the Bridgeton office in January 2002.

One of his first items of business was to rehire Donald Rasch.

Rasch offers this recollection: "We sat there, Biron and myself, thinking what the hell do we do with this stuff? These museum-quality, beautiful, beautiful works. Biron said he put an ad in something, trying to find these people. We couldn't find them, and well, after so many months, we thought these people were dead, or these were ill-gotten gains."

One early summer day in 2002, Rasch continues, while Stratton was away from the office on vacation, "Biron looked at me and said, 'Hey man, this stuff is up for grabs.'"

Rasch proceeded to unpack the 40 crates. After unfurling the bounty, the men began divvying up the art like schoolboys with a stash of baseball cards. They started with the most valuable works: the Mark Rothko from 1968, the Willem de Kooning oil on canvas from 1956.

"Biron got the Rothko because I wouldn't cross the street to see one," cracks Rasch. He took the de Kooning. The thieves continued choosing artworks based on their personal tastes.

"We sat there with a couple beers and said, 'Well, we're going to Heaven or Hell for this. We'll either be kings or paupers,'" Rasch recalls.

"We knew the ramifications of what could have happened, what has happened. We thought that if these people surfaced we'd be in big trouble. But you know, were we gonna sit there and let the art rot in that heat or were we gonna take those puppies to loving homes?"

Rasch adds that the warehouse wasn't environmentally controlled. "The place would bake in the summer and freeze in the winter, and this stuff was gonna sit there and rot."

Biron Valier declined to comment for this story.

"It's a terrible stain on the family," says Valier's father, Biron Valier Jr., a paper-company executive now living in Stamford, Connecticut.

One former FAE colleague wonders if Biron Valier committed the crime because he was fed up with his skimpy paychecks. "He was never going to make more than $30,000, and he had two kids and a high standard of living. He was trying to buy a home. He was driving a dumpy, small pickup truck. And the company was not going anywhere. He would talk about friends with nicer cars, nicer houses — and maybe he wanted that stuff for his own family, too. Maybe he was trying to impress them."

Says Rasch: "I know that Biron is a good person. This wasn't money-motivated at all. It was a passion for this work. It had to be rescued."

Fine Arts Express was so cluttered with moving boxes that no one even noticed the Harters' art had gone missing — certainly not the Florida couple, who kept paying the company its storage fee.

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