The Purloined Rockwell

Mar 2, 2007 at 6:53 pm

Academy Award-winning director and producer Steven Spielberg has turned over to federal authorities Russian Schoolroom, a 1967 oil on canvas by Norman Rockwell that was filched from a Clayton art gallery in 1973, according to the FBI.

No charges have been filed in the case, and federal officials say they have no evidence that Spielberg knew the painting had been stolen when he purchased it in 1989.

"It appears that he is an innocent buyer," says St. Louis-based FBI agent Frank Brostrom, a member of the agency's Art Crime Team, who initiated the investigation.

Spielberg is an avid Rockwell collector who helped fund the construction in 1993 of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and who joined its board of directors this past September. According to a December 3 article in the Washington Post, Rockwells from Spielberg's collection adorn numerous rooms in his office compound at Universal Studios in Hollywood.

The director of Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, among other celebrated films, did not return a phone call from Riverfront Times requesting comment.

Stolen in St. Louis in �73. Found today -- on Steven Spielberg's wall.
Despite its recovery, many details of Russian Schoolroom's journey from a St. Louis suburb to Spielberg's collection remain a mystery.

The painting was stolen on the night of June 25, 1973, from a Rockwell exhibit at the Circle Art Galleries in Clayton, by a thief or thieves who smashed through the gallery window and left every other work untouched.

For the next fifteen years, the artwork went underground.

According to the FBI, the painting resurfaced in New Orleans in October 1988 at the Louisiana Purchase Auction at Morton Goldberg Auction and Gallery, which has since closed.

The FBI says the painting appeared on the market again in the summer of 1989, when Judy Goffman Cutler, an art dealer on New York's Upper East Side, put the piece up for sale. Cutler is also the founder of the National Museum of American Illustration, located in Newport, Rhode Island, which owns many of Rockwell's works.

At least two people, including Mary Ellen Shortland, the manager of the Circle Art Galleries at the time of the theft, saw Cutler's advertisements for the painting and attempted to get police to relaunch an investigation, but to no avail.

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

What led Brostrom to reopen the cold case fifteen years later, in 2004, the agent says, was a message from "a friendly source in the community" who tipped him off to a 1989 Riverfront Times story about Shortland's efforts.

That story, by longtime contributor Wm. Stage, recounts a conversation with Goffman Cutler, noting that the art dealer "doubted whether the Rockwell in her possession had likely been stolen." Stage wrote that Goffman Cutler "had gotten it from someone who'd purchased it at auction," and that "the stolen Rockwell was a different version of the one she had just sold -- to an undisclosed person for an undisclosed sum."

The FBI art crime team believes that "undisclosed person" to whom Goffman Cutler refers was Spielberg.

Brostrom says his "friendly source" indicated the "undisclosed sum" was $200,000.

Goffman Cutler did not return a phone call requesting comment for this story.

Jack Solomon, the former owner of Circle Art Galleries, was Rockwell's dealer up until several years before the painter's death in 1978, and was the owner of Russian Schoolroom when it was stolen. "She should have known better," says Solomon, who now owns S2 Art Center, a Las Vegas gallery, in reference to Goffman Cutler. "She could have checked that -- there's been a record of this ever since the day it was stolen."

The case broke open suddenly late last week, when the FBI received a call from a Spielberg representative. Someone in the director's entourage had recently noticed a year-old alert on the FBI's Web site describing the stolen painting. The call from Spielberg's representative came at about the same time that a New York-based member of the FBI Art Crime Team began querying dealers and galleries there in order to determine the most prominent collectors of Rockwells.

That group, according to Rockwell Museum curator Linda Pero, includes former presidential candidate Ross Perot and film director George Lucas, in addition to Spielberg.

An FBI agent in Los Angeles spent the past week negotiating the painting's return.

"It's not a typical Rockwell," notes Solomon, the artwork's former owner. "He did it when he traveled to Russia at the end of the Cold War. It's beautiful. It has a lot of reds in it."

Authorities expect a legal skirmish to ensue over title to the work. The FBI says Spielberg will retain possession until the matter is resolved.

Solomon hopes he'll be declared the rightful owner. "I'm sure in two calls I could turn it over for X million dollars before the sun goes down," he says.

-Kristen Hinman