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.

"Mr. Elam was very unhappy that I'd talked him into letting us keep the painting," recalls Shortland. "Later he found out that the painting was probably worth more like $40,000. He'd gotten a heck of a deal, only for it to be robbed out from under him."

In the end, the gallery reimbursed Elam the money he put down on the painting and Arts International retained title to the work. Later the gallery was paid $25,000 from its insurer for the loss.

A few weeks after the theft, Elam hired a private detective to investigate. Shortland recalls that the detective came back with disturbing news. "He said he'd found the people who'd stolen it, and they were a bad outfit," remembers Shortland. "He warned Mr. Elam that even if he got the painting back, they'd just steal it again."

The police report of the painting's 1973 theft
The police report of the painting's 1973 theft
Robin Eley

Shortland would eventually forget about the painting. Then — sixteen years after its disappearance — she was flipping through the July/August 1989 edition of the trade magazine Art & Auction when she came across an advertisement announcing the sale of Russian Schoolroom.

"I did a complete double-take," she says. "That painting was stolen, and it cost me a lot of money and headaches. I thought to myself: 'You got to be kidding me.'"

Shortland says she tried to call Jack Solomon at his Chicago offices but was unable to get through. She then called Judy Goffman Fine Art in Manhattan, which was listed in the magazine as the gallery selling the work. "I asked, 'Do you actually have the painting?'" recalls Shortland. "They said, 'Sure.' They were asking something like $175,000 for it."

Shortland's queries into the work were later chronicled by former Riverfront Times reporter Wm. Stage in the October 11, 1989, issue of this paper. Stage wrote that he also attempted to get in touch with Solomon to no avail. He did, however, succeed in interviewing Judy Goffman Cutler, who told him she'd recently sold the Rockwell to a person whom she declined to name.

As to the claims that the painting had been stolen, Stage reported that Goffman Cutler told him the artist often did several studies of one painting. The stolen Rockwell, surmised Goffman Cutler, must have been a different version of the one she'd recently sold.

Stage later interviewed an agent with the FBI who spoke on the condition that he not be quoted directly or named in the story. The agent told Stage the FBI investigated the painting a year earlier, in 1988, when a Rockwell scholar notified the agency that Russian Schoolroom was listed for sale at an auction in New Orleans. (Goffman Cutler won the bidding at $70,400.) The agent told Stage the matter was then routed to the FBI's St. Louis office, but the investigation became stymied when no one could find a police report for the stolen work.

This past March Frank Brostrom, a special agent in charge of the FBI's Art Crime Team, told Riverfront Times that he was prompted to reopen the case in 2004 when "a friendly source in the community" tipped him off to Stage's 1989 article. He, too, acknowledged that the police report was missing.

"For whatever reason authorities at the time were unable to locate the original police report or confirm the painting had ever been stolen," Brostrom told the RFT.

Earlier this year agent Frank Brostrom was transferred from the FBI's St. Louis office to North Carolina. He could not be reached for comment for this story. Agents familiar with the Russian Schoolroom case in St. Louis and Los Angeles would not comment on specifics other than what's already been reported.

If, however, the police report was missing back in 1989, it's now readily available at the Clayton Police Department. "I got a call from the FBI about two years ago on this and we were able to pull the report from our archives right away," says Clayton police captain Kevin Murphy. "How or why that wasn't the case then, I can't tell you."

The six-page report gives the value of the painting as $20,000 and notes the owner as both Arts International and Bert Elam. An appendix to the report provides a witness testimony from a man who claimed to see a black male break through the front door of the gallery at 6:40 a.m. and leave seconds later with a painting tucked under his arm. Nothing else in the gallery was touched during the smash-and-run.

Clayton police can produce several more larceny reports from the same address at 8113 Maryland Avenue. During a stretch in the mid-1970s the gallery was a constant target, with a persistent thief (or thieves) burglarizing the gallery on at least four separate occasions between 1973 and 1977.

The most interesting of those break-ins occurred July 8, 1976, when a crook pried open the front door to the gallery and left with seven Rockwell lithograph prints valued at more than $7,000.

In late February 1978 those prints would be recovered in the Rock Hill home of Russell G. Byers. A notorious St. Louis art thief, Byers would testify before the House Select Committee on Assassinations in May 1978 that he'd once been offered $50,000 by two Jefferson County businessmen to kill Martin Luther King Jr.

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