The Rockwell Files

Steven Spielberg's stolen painting, a St. Louis art thief, and a plot to kill Martin Luther King. It could make a helluva movie.

The fallout was bound to get ugly. But who knew it would get so strange?

In March filmmaker Steven Spielberg was found in possession of a stolen Norman Rockwell painting. As the Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press, CNN and countless other media outlets reported then, Spielberg purchased the pilfered art for $200,000 in 1989 — some sixteen years after it disappeared from a suburban St. Louis gallery during an early-morning burglary.

The artwork in question, an oil-on-canvas piece titled Russian Schoolroom, was commissioned by Look magazine in 1967. Today it has a value of nearly $700,000. According to federal authorities, Spielberg first learned of the painting's dubious provenance in late February, when one of his employees noticed the painting listed on the FBI's Art Crime Team Web site. In a press release issued March 2, the FBI stated: "Mr. Spielberg is cooperating fully with the FBI and will retain possession of the Russian Schoolroom until its disposition can be determined."

Robin Eley
Norman Rockwell's Russian Schoolroom.
Norman Rockwell
Norman Rockwell's Russian Schoolroom.

Now a civil legal battle has erupted over the ownership of the filched painting. Last month Jack Solomon — owner of the now-defunct Clayton art gallery, Arts International, from which the painting was stolen in 1973 — sued both Spielberg and the FBI for ownership of the painting.

The lawsuit filed in federal court in Solomon's home state of Nevada alleges that the FBI "has allowed defendant Spielberg to retain possession of the Rockwell painting and failed to return the subject artwork to plaintiff Solomon despite the FBI's actual knowledge of the theft, recovery and ownership."

Meanwhile, Judy Goffman Cutler, the Rhode Island-based art dealer who sold the painting to Spielberg in 1989, has filed suit against Solomon and the Art Loss Register Inc., an agency that is assisting Solomon in retrieving the painting. In a lawsuit also filed last month in federal court, Goffman Cutler claims Solomon's insurer paid him $25,000 for the artwork following the heist and that he no longer has any claim to the painting.

Goffman Cutler further alleges that the Art Loss Register intimidated her by threatening to have criminal charges filed against her and that Jack Solomon defamed her character in an interview with Riverfront Times this spring. In Kristen Hinman's article published March 7, Solomon claims Goffman Cutler "should have known better" and "could have checked that there's been a record of this ever since the day it was stolen."

Goffman Cutler also asserts that Spielberg — an avid art collector and board member for the Norman Rockwell Museum in Massachusetts — severed his business relationship with her shortly after Solomon made his accusations to the paper. She is asking the court to award her $5 million for the loss of the Spielberg account and another $10 million for "general damage to her reputation in her profession."

On May 11 the movie mogul transferred title of Russian Schoolroom back to Goffman Cutler in exchange for another Rockwell piece. Spielberg spokesman Marvin Levy says the filmmaker is cooperating with officials and the FBI has been kept abreast of every move.

"Steven was prepared to turn it over to the FBI, but they asked us to hold onto it for safekeeping," says Levy. "We're doing whatever they tell us."

Solomon and his attorneys contend that Spielberg should never have signed the title to the painting back over to Goffman Cutler. The maneuver, they assert, does not clear the famed director of Schindler's List and other Oscar-winning films of culpability.

"It's very disappointing that Steven Spielberg — who is so active in Holocaust causes and other philanthropies — chose in this case not to assist a theft victim recover what's his," says Christopher Marinello, general counsel for the Art Loss Register in New York.

But even as new allegations over the ownership of the painting come to light, parties on both sides of the debate are whispering of a far more intriguing wrinkle to the story. They note that the government press releases that heralded the painting's discovery last March make no mention of the person (or persons) who stole Russian Schoolroom in the first place.

The omission, say people familiar with the case, could be for good reason and may very well be tied to the thief's association with a St. Louis-based plot to kill Martin Luther King Jr. It's a wild story, full of FBI oversights and fumbles — and a tale the feds might prefer remain a mystery.

Mary Ellen Shortland was 28 years old and working as assistant director of Arts International when someone smashed though the gallery's front door on June 25, 1973.

Shortland, now 62 and owner of Creative Art Gallery & Framing in south St. Louis, recalls the theft of Russian Schoolroom as one of the great disappointments in her young career. She says Arts International was hosting an exhibit of signed Rockwell prints that June. In an effort to build publicity for the three-week show, Jack Solomon (who owned Arts International, as well as dozens of other galleries across the nation) had an employee from one of his Kansas City studios drive Russian Schoolroom to St. Louis.

The painting had been here for just one day when on June 21 Shortland sold it for $25,000 to the late Bert Elam, a St. Louis concrete contractor and art collector. Elam agreed to let the gallery display the work until the end of the show. Four days later, on June 25, a thief made off with the painting and Shortland nearly lost her best customer.

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