Masterpiece Theatre

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

A standard confidentiality agreement prevented Richard Gray from contacting anyone the gallery knew to be the Rothko's owners, explains Albert Watkins, the Kodners' St. Louis attorney.

"In the end, the Kodners' meticulous records gave the feds their case," Watkins says.

"Most galleries aren't in the business of buying stolen property," agrees FBI agent Wittman. "They can't do anything with them. And it'll ruin their reputation."

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.

To save its good name, Kodner Gallery paid $800,000 to buy back the stolen artwork that it brokered.

The gallery in July filed a fraud and restitution suit in St. Louis County Circuit Court against Biron and Julie Valier. The Kodners are seeking at least $1.5 million in damages.

"And why wasn't Biron's wife ever charged in the crime?" wonders Watkins. "She was there with Valier, saying the art was hers. And her signatures are all over the sale papers."

Authorities and federal prosecutors have no answer.

Valier's St. Louis attorney, William Margulis, says the case should be dismissed because Kodner Gallery cheated Valier out of $239,750 by paying Valier only 50 percent — not the agreed-upon 85 percent — of all sale proceeds.

"Imagine the balls on a thief who wrongfully asserts that Kodner Gallery can't recover their losses because he incorrectly believes he wasn't paid enough for art he admitted to stealing," says an astonished Watkins. "Those are swollen testicles."

Stuart Slavin, meanwhile, has also filed a civil lawsuit in county court seeking a declaratory judgment against Rasch and the Harters, seeking to obtain ownership of the eight artworks.

The Ladue collector says he didn't consider filing a suit to recoup any of the $150,000 he spent acquiring the stolen art.

"Nobody likes losing that kind of money," Slavin concludes. "But obviously you care more about the paintings."

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