Masterpiece Theatre

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

"Mrs. Harter has checks and records of payments to all the companies that owned the facility," says Detective Lance Harris. "Now, did she ever fall behind? Maybe, but that doesn't give you the right to steal the art. Even the company couldn't sell that stuff at an auction house without a court order saying it had been abandoned."

Don Rasch says he and Biron "acted as if [the theft] never happened." The pair carried on with business as usual — which wasn't much, according to FAE's former chief operating officer, Ellsworth Lank, who is based in Baltimore.

Lank remembers clients complaining to him that Rasch often reeked of booze and acted belligerent. "Don was a slob," says Lank. "I questioned his hygiene practices. I told Biron, 'You need to talk to this guy; I don't want him out like that representing us.'"

Surveillance photos revealed the Harters' artwork hanging on the walls of Stuart Slavin's Ladue home.
Surveillance photos revealed the Harters' artwork hanging on the walls of Stuart Slavin's Ladue home.

Lank finally instructed Valier to get rid of Rasch in the fall of 2002.

But Lank wasn't happy with Valier, either.

"Basically the St. Louis office was doing absolutely nothing," Lank recalls. "And the Saint Louis Art Museum, who should have been the biggest client there, wouldn't do business with us. I knew Biron's mother was connected to that circle and I kept saying, 'Biron, why can't you get any business out of those people? That's our client base!'"

Lank said Valier gave him varied excuses for not returning calls or not answering the office phone in the first place. "I would always say, 'Biron, you're full of bullshit. I never shut my cell phone off!'" Lank later learned that Valier sometimes closed the office to go to the ballgame.

In the spring of 2003, Fine Arts Express held a seminar in Boston that Valier attended. "At least a half-dozen times I would look over and Biron would be sleeping," Lank remembers. "Supposedly it was a disorder and he was going to take some sort of medication for it. I don't know what he did."

Lank says he got fed up with Valier and fired him shortly after the seminar.

Out of work, Valier finally gave David Kodner the green light to sell the Mark Rothko painting, among others.

The Kodner Gallery ran checks of the paintings through the Art Loss Register, a national database of stolen artworks. The gallery found nothing awry and began trolling for buyers. By the end of September 2004, and thanks to David Kodner's salesmanship, Valier would net $366,000.

And still, no one was on to Country Day's class clown.

Police say the heist is really no different from a couple of Target employees filching lawn furniture.

But like Bob Wittman of the FBI's art-crime team points out, "The art of art theft is not the stealing of the painting, it's trying to make money after you steal it."

Rasch had no idea Valier was selling the stolen goods through Kodner Gallery. For his part, he says he never intended to sell any of his loot.

"I wanted to give it all a loving home," he contends. But his mind changed when he quit a job hanging billboards after an injury and couldn't find other work. "I was hurting. I decided, well, 'I'm gonna have to give up some of these things in order to live.'"

In early June of 2003, Rasch convinced Randy Blaze, a local home rehabber, to set up a meeting with Stuart Slavin, a real-estate mogul and art collector from Ladue.

Police reports say Slavin purchased four pieces of art from Rasch just two days after they met for the first time at Rasch's ramshackle house in University City.

Slavin remembers it differently. "I went once, and I didn't know what anything was," he says. "I've been collecting for 40 years, and my forte is 1850 to 1950. I didn't know anything about what he had or if it impressed me. So I went back a week or so later with Daniel [Lieberman, an art appraiser]. Daniel thought the pieces were worth more than Rasch was asking."

Slavin then bought Rasch's Willem de Kooning nude, a Milton Avery watercolor, a David Smith ink drawing and a sculpture by Bill Spira, for a total of $50,000.

The de Kooning, at $31,000 the most expensive of the four, turned out to be a bargain. (Employees from Christie's auction house in New York City appraised the piece at $250,000 in 2003.)

Elliot Smith, a former St. Louis art dealer and an ex-employer of Rasch, says, "The whole idea of Donald having access to a de Kooning would just make me laugh. Yeah, right! Donald was not a very polished individual. That person had to know he was buying stolen goods. Thirty-one thousand dollars doesn't buy you very much, especially a real de Kooning."

Slavin scoffs at the accusation. "That's just ludicrous."

Rasch told Slavin he inherited the artworks from his grandfather, William W. Billings, a master carpenter who "drank with the artists" in New York City in the 1940s and '50s. Slavin made Rasch write a history of Billings and his friendship with de Kooning.

"The stories and the research are half the fun of buying art," says Slavin.

In fact, a painting's provenance — or history of past owners — can make it more valuable, and Slavin called all the galleries that previously handled Rasch's pieces to verify their legitimacy. Slavin also checked with Art Loss Register to make sure the works weren't stolen. "I was absolutely, 100 percent dead-sure there was no problem with these paintings."

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