Masterpiece Theatre

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

He purchased three more pieces from Rasch throughout the next year, and even invited Rasch to his Ladue home for an opinion on how he'd hung the artworks. It was only after Slavin purchased an eighth piece from Rasch that the scheme began to unravel — and quickly.

On October 10, 2004, Slavin put down $5,000 towards an acrylic painting by Sam Francis. He promised to pay Rasch the $30,000 remaining balance later. Slavin then called a gallery to verify the artwork's authenticity and was shocked by what he heard: A couple named David and Diane Harter purchased the piece well after 1985, the year Rasch said his grandfather died and bequeathed the art to him.

Slavin went straight to Rasch for an explanation, and Rasch quickly changed his story, saying an FAE executive told him to throw out the Harters' works for lack of payment. Rasch later retrieved the pieces from Dumpsters. Although the FAE executive denied Rasch's claim to police, and other former FAE employees called the very notion "ridiculous," Slavin says he believes Rasch's second story.

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.

"And people ask me, 'How in the world could you?' Because the same thing happened to me 30 years ago."

In 1979, Slavin sold a Homer Dodge Martin painting to a New York City gallery after buying it from a man who found it in a Dumpster in south St. Louis.

Slavin tracked down David and Diane Harter in Florida, and through his attorney, Greg White, Slavin offered to pay the couple the $30,000 balance that he owed Rasch for "a release of all claims" and "an acknowledgement of good and clear title" to the eight artworks.

Slavin doesn't believe he owes the Harters "a nickel more."

The Harters' son-in-law, Adam Kirwan, a Florida attorney who dealt with White, told police that Slavin's offer was "tantamount to an extortion demand."

Frantic at the idea of their collection being stolen, the Harters enlisted James Anterio and German Bosque, two south-Florida private investigators. The men came to St. Louis and spent several days trash-diving in order to establish Slavin's identity. In the dark of night, they snapped photos of the artworks hanging on his Ladue walls and took the evidence to Detective Harris on October 21, 2004.

Harris immediately learned of Rasch's identity from Slavin and began tracing the crime to FAE. All the while, the unflappable Anterio and Bosque set out to find more pilfered art. After several false starts, they began paying visits to galleries with large Yellow Page display ads.

Kodner Gallery was Anterio's third stop. That's when a devastated Jonathan Kodner clutched his chest, yelped "My father's good name!" and revealed Biron Valier's identity. "Kodner went to his knees, crying," recalls Anterio.

"If you're gonna sell this stuff," Anterio adds, "go do a cash transaction, spend a few years overseas, then come back. Don't do what these friggin' retards Valier and Rasch did — sell the stuff to their neighbors down the street."

Rasch says he's sorry that he "pissed away" the illicit earnings on alcohol, jewelry, trips to Chicago, tickets to Six Flags and a fancy dinner at Tony's.

"Yeah, I should have told the truth [to Slavin] from the beginning, and he would have walked or bought it anyway. If I were smart, I would have said, 'Cash and a handshake.'"

Donald Rasch and Biron Valier pleaded guilty this summer to one federal count each of conspiracy to transport stolen goods across state lines. Rasch, who returned 34 stolen artworks to authorities, was sentenced last week to two years in prison.

United States District Court Judge Charles Shaw ruled that Rasch and Valier are jointly liable for the $1.2 million owed to the Harters.

Valier, who returned 47 pieces to police and admitted to stealing seven others, was sentenced on November 15 to ninety days in prison, six months on house arrest and three years of supervised release.

"These two caused damage to a family, art galleries, collectors and the fine-art shipping industry, and that's sacred territory," says former FAE manager Kim Humphries. "It's a travesty that they didn't face more jail time. If I were running this thing, they'd be in jail until every piece was back in the Harters' hands."

As for Diane Harter: "There're going to be lawsuits."

Over the past year, St. Louis authorities have recovered some of the works in places as far away as San Francisco, New York, even Japan. Still, 45 pieces of the stolen art remain missing.

In an ironic twist discovered in the recovery efforts, the Richard Gray Gallery in Chicago — which originally sold the Rothko to David and Diane Harter back in 1991 — called the couple in early 2003 and asked if they'd sell the artwork, according to a Bridgeton police report. The Harters declined.

When the Rothko came up for sale by Kodner Gallery six months later, Richard Gray bought it without contacting the Harters, and resold it to a Tokyo businessman named Takashi Endo.

Gallery owner Elliot Smith wonders if the crime could have been discovered sooner. "Richard Gray is the best gallery in Chicago. But obviously they didn't do their homework," he says. "They were buying from a reputable source — Kodner Gallery has a very good reputation — so [Gray] must have thought, everything must be fine. But I think a lot of people were sloppy here."

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