Masterpiece Theatre

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

Art Theft

The fateful business deal began near a hot dog stand at Busch Stadium on a balmy June evening in 2002. Between innings, Biron Valier III and David Kodner, old acquaintances from Saint Louis Country Day School, shook hands and exchanged hellos.

Kodner remembers Valier saying, "Hey man, I'm sorry to hear about your dad passing."

Though he'd never been close to Valier, Kodner appreciated the kind thought.

"I'm going to be coming into some art here sometime soon, through the family," Valier continued, "and I'd love your help with it."

"You got it," Kodner replied. "Give a call anytime. We'd be glad to."

Valier appeared at Kodner Gallery in Ladue about a month later with a prized oil painting by Mark Rothko, the highly regarded modern artist who produced abstract works in broad, single-color swaths. Kodner inspected the piece and assured Valier he could sell it.

"Well, I've got a ton more at home," Kodner remembers Valier telling him. "I'd like you guys to come over and do an appraisal."

Soon afterward, David Kodner and his older brother, Jonathan, paid a visit to Valier's University City apartment. Awaiting them were more than four dozen works by such renowned artists as Robert Motherwell, Henri Matisse and Guy Buffet. With his wife, Julie, and two young children by his side, Valier claimed they inherited the collection from Julie's late grandfather.

The brothers proceeded to take the artwork back to the gallery to assess their value.

The Kodners are anything but art novices, having grown up antiquing and art-buying on weekends with their father, Martin, who opened Kodner Gallery in 1971.

"Martin was a terrific guy, very honest, straightforward, and his main specialty was twentieth-century art," notes Ronnie Greenberg, an art dealer in St. Louis and New York. "People would ask me who to go to for those kinds of pieces, and I'd recommend him. Now I recommend his sons."

Animated salesmen both, David and Jonathan took over the gallery after Martin died of cancer a month before Biron and David's encounter at the Cardinals game. The Kodner brothers were very close to their father and still choke up when they talk of their efforts to preserve his stellar reputation — a most valuable asset in the close-knit art world.

The Kodners say they never imagined what a calamitous mistake they'd make by agreeing to handle Valier's collection. After all, they figured, the 38-year-old Valier came from a prominent, long-rooted St. Louis family. Valier's grandfather, Biron Valier Sr., was once president of Old Warson Country Club, a top executive at the prestigious Gardner Advertising Co. and highly esteemed in Ladue social circles.

Biron Valier's father was an executive at Ralston-Purina, and his mother is now wed to Jerry Sincoff, the ex-chief executive officer of HOK (Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum) design firm and former president of the Saint Louis Art Museum Board of Commissioners.

David and Biron also shared the quintessential St. Louis connection: the same high school alma mater, which happens to be the private-academy-of-choice among the city's landed gentry. Valier played on the Country Day football team with FOX sports announcer and St. Louis favorite son Joe Buck. His 1986 graduating class named Valier "Most Fun to be With" and "Class Clown."

Valier, the Kodners thought, possessed just the right pedigree to inherit the kind of blue-chip art he was peddling.

In August 2002, David and Jonathan concluded that Valier's collection could net more than $1 million on the market. The 1968 Rothko, a dark, monochromatic work, was Valier's most valuable piece — then expected to fetch at least $500,000. (Today the Rothko would sell for as much as $1.5 million, says David.)

Throughout the next year, Valier permitted the Kodners to sell some of the art on consignment for him, and in July 2003 the Richard Gray Gallery in Chicago purchased the Rothko for $600,000. Valier and Kodner split the proceeds.

It was a transaction that would have thrilled the Kodners' father, who often told his sons that Rothko was one of his favorite artists. The sons recall him recounting with sadness a missed opportunity to meet the celebrated painter for lunch at New York City's Plaza Hotel on February 11, 1964. Enormous crowds, owing to the Beatles' inaugural U.S. visit, made for a failed rendezvous.

"That's why we were so proud to handle this deal," says Jonathan.

Adds David: "Dad had just died. It was almost like a gift from him."

In August — perhaps with the earnings from the Rothko sale — Biron and Julie Valier bought their first home, a modest Creve Coeur abode just two miles from both of the Kodners' residences.

"We started seeing him all over the neighborhood," says David. "We'd talk now and then, nothing buddy-buddy, but you know, 'How are things going?' 'Oh, fine.' Biron said he was taking a fishing trip, bought a new car, had a bat in the house, that kind of thing."

All seemed well enough until one Friday afternoon in October 2004, when a south-Florida private detective came on the scene. Clad in cargo shorts and wearing sunglasses, the husky gumshoe carried with him a thick black binder containing photographs of stolen art.

Jonathan Kodner clutched his chest when he laid eyes on a picture of the very Rothko he sold to the Chicago gallery one year earlier.

"My father's good name!" he screamed.

Biron Valier III would soon be revealed as an architect of a $4 million art heist.

"There's always the desire of collectors to have material that other people don't have. One-of-a-kind items are special," imparts Bob Wittman, a Philadelphia-based special agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. "And that's where collectors sometimes get a larcenous attitude. They really want to have those pieces. They decide they can't live without them."

Today, an estimated $8 billion worth of art is missing worldwide. Hoping to catch more culprits who've managed to manipulate the hush-hush world of art-buying, the FBI last year formed a special art-crime team.

"The art industry is one of the largest unregulated industries in the U.S.," Wittman explains. He adds that new problems will arise when looted treasures from Iraq reach American shores.

Wittman says the St. Louis case was extremely unusual because of the money and number of stolen artworks involved. "And the fact that these paintings had gone all over the country — even the world."

There seems little chance that Donald Rasch would have ever crossed paths with Biron Valier, the rich kid reared at the Town & Country Racquet Club who went on to collect a master's in fine arts from New York City's Pratt Institute.

"I grew up poor in East St. Louis," reflects the 44-year-old Rasch, a short, skinny chap with jet-black hair and arresting aquamarine eyes. "My father was a cop, and my mother worked in cosmetics at the Famous-Barr in downtown St. Louis."

"During the weekends my father worked three jobs, one as a security guard at a warehouse behind the Science Center," Rasch goes on. "I would watch the lot while he slept. I had a .38 on me, and a security guard's outfit, and our German shepherd, King, stayed with me. I was ten, and we busted a couple guys."

Rasch says his father would have loved him to be a cop, but Rasch had other ideas. "I wanted to be a zoologist," he says. As far as becoming an artist, "I had no choice. It just happened."

Long known in the local art world as "Downtown Don," an aging "loft rat" who squatted in spaces that doubled as his studio, Rasch has yet to make a buck from his paintings.

"One time we found a hole in the wall next to his door," recalls an ex-landlord, Stanley Palmer. "He must have locked himself out, and smashed a hole through the drywall to get back in. We had reason to look inside, and the place was a wreck. Garbage, beer cans, food debris — you name it."

"Don was a slob," seconds Ellsworth Lank, Rasch's former employer at Fine Arts Express, a high-end art-transport and -storage company. "And he had an attitude problem, a chip on his shoulder, [thought] that he was smarter than anybody."

Lank and others say alcohol accounted for much of Rasch's problem. "I am a drunk," Rasch admits. "But people who really know me, like me."

Many refer to Rasch as a personable, charismatic guy, though they concede that they never really knew when he was telling the truth. "He had a history of saying things, not as they are, but as he'd like them to be," says Palmer.

Rasch boasted wildly of his military prowess and recently told acquaintances that he was shipping off to fight in Iraq. (He says he served in the Illinois National Guard in the 1980s.)

When Rasch the bachelor met Biron Valier — father of two and a diminutive, roly-poly fellow of 225 pounds — the duo became buddies, Rasch says. It was the late 1990s, and the men worked moving and installing exhibits at Clayton's R. Duane Reed Gallery.

"Art handling is a business that attracts a lot of people who are not terribly ambitious," says one former museum shipping manager who worked with Valier. "It's for low-aspiring people, lumpen beatniks. And Biron always struck me as that: an old-time hippie, very easygoing. He was sweet-natured, a family man, an all-around good Joe."

Valier and Rasch, throughout their working lives, held similar low-paying jobs at varied galleries and museums around town. Rasch needed a job and, with no trust fund at his disposal, so did Valier.

In the summer of 2000, Valier became a salesman at Fine Arts Express, once the darling of its small, competitive industry. FAE was based in Boston but had a local office in an unmarked building on Grandel Square. The local manager, Kim Humphries, hired Rasch as an art handler at Valier's behest.

Ask ex-colleagues if Rasch and Valier were pals and the answer is, unfailingly, "I hardly think so."

Rasch begs to differ. The artist says other FAE workers sneered at Valier, calling him "that rich kid" under their breath. "I knew [Biron's] mommy and daddy had money, but I didn't care," Rasch contends. "Biron and I were so close that he was never condescending to me."

The men liked to joke about politics and gossip about the Cardinals, Rasch says, and Rasch admired Valier's "Oscar-Wilde wit" and "Falstaffian" jolliness.

Of course, the men also shared a love of art — apparently one so ardent that they would conspire to steal 113 masterpieces.

Says Rasch: "This was absolutely a crime of passion."

I got to make love to my woman under a Willem de Kooning nude," crows Donald Rasch on a recent October morning, proud of the stolen painting of a corpulent maiden that hung over his bed.

"Having this stuff in my life for just the amount of time that I did is probably worth the time that I'm going to be serving," he reasons. "Yes, I think so."

Rasch and Valier worked at FAE during a tumultuous time. The art firm's computer network was a shambles, and getting purchase orders cleared through the corporate headquarters was a nightmare. Toward the end of 2001, the Boston office, hoping to improve its financial health, notified the St. Louis operation that it would relocate to another warehouse in Bridgeton.

When employees began clearing out the office, they came across 40 wooden crates. Whom did they belong to, and what was in them? No one knew.

"The place was run by art people. You're not talking about bean counters," explains Detective Lance Harris of the Bridgeton Police Department. "The records of stored material had become rather vague over the years."

In December 2001, manager Kim Humphries instructed Rasch and another employee to pry open several crates. And when they did, to everyone's great surprise, they discovered a trove of marquee modern art. There were pieces by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Jackson Pollock, Paul Klee, Georges Braques, Wassily Kandinsky, along with Rothko and de Kooning.

"These boxes didn't even have a bill of lading. They were not in our system," insists Rasch. "The heads in Boston told us they weren't being paid for."

The artworks belonged to Diane and David Harter of Palm City, Florida. The couple spent more than 40 years building their collection. In 1994, the Harters decided to store their "beloved treasures" with FAE before moving from Nebraska to Arizona and, later, to Florida. They never purchased an insurance policy for the works, relying instead on FAE's sterling record of security.

Kim Humphries told police that in 2001 FAE repackaged and moved the Harters' boxes to Bridgeton, under his watch. Immediately after relocating, everyone was fired except Biron Valier and Sarah Stratton. Valier became general manager at the Bridgeton office in January 2002.

One of his first items of business was to rehire Donald Rasch.

Rasch offers this recollection: "We sat there, Biron and myself, thinking what the hell do we do with this stuff? These museum-quality, beautiful, beautiful works. Biron said he put an ad in something, trying to find these people. We couldn't find them, and well, after so many months, we thought these people were dead, or these were ill-gotten gains."

One early summer day in 2002, Rasch continues, while Stratton was away from the office on vacation, "Biron looked at me and said, 'Hey man, this stuff is up for grabs.'"

Rasch proceeded to unpack the 40 crates. After unfurling the bounty, the men began divvying up the art like schoolboys with a stash of baseball cards. They started with the most valuable works: the Mark Rothko from 1968, the Willem de Kooning oil on canvas from 1956.

"Biron got the Rothko because I wouldn't cross the street to see one," cracks Rasch. He took the de Kooning. The thieves continued choosing artworks based on their personal tastes.

"We sat there with a couple beers and said, 'Well, we're going to Heaven or Hell for this. We'll either be kings or paupers,'" Rasch recalls.

"We knew the ramifications of what could have happened, what has happened. We thought that if these people surfaced we'd be in big trouble. But you know, were we gonna sit there and let the art rot in that heat or were we gonna take those puppies to loving homes?"

Rasch adds that the warehouse wasn't environmentally controlled. "The place would bake in the summer and freeze in the winter, and this stuff was gonna sit there and rot."

Biron Valier declined to comment for this story.

"It's a terrible stain on the family," says Valier's father, Biron Valier Jr., a paper-company executive now living in Stamford, Connecticut.

One former FAE colleague wonders if Biron Valier committed the crime because he was fed up with his skimpy paychecks. "He was never going to make more than $30,000, and he had two kids and a high standard of living. He was trying to buy a home. He was driving a dumpy, small pickup truck. And the company was not going anywhere. He would talk about friends with nicer cars, nicer houses — and maybe he wanted that stuff for his own family, too. Maybe he was trying to impress them."

Says Rasch: "I know that Biron is a good person. This wasn't money-motivated at all. It was a passion for this work. It had to be rescued."

Fine Arts Express was so cluttered with moving boxes that no one even noticed the Harters' art had gone missing — certainly not the Florida couple, who kept paying the company its storage fee.

"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.'"

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."

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.

"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."

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."

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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