Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Stolen Painting, the Murder of Martin Luther King, the FBI .... and Steven Spielberg

" ... IT’S SOMEWHAT IRONIC that a Rockwell has been caught up in such a maelstrom of controversy and conspiracy. The American illustrator is best known for his nostalgic scenes of simpler times ... "

" ... after two suspects connected to the art theft ring were murdered 1978 and another refused to testify, prosecutors dropped the case ... "

By Richard Salit

Norman Rockwell’s stolen 1967 painting, Russian Schoolroom, now valued at $700,000, is the subject of a legal dispute in U.S. District Court in Nevada.

NEWPORT — It has all the makings of a Hollywood film: a powerful movie mogul and his society art dealer inadvertently get tangled up in an art heist, an FBI investigation, a political assassination and a courtroom drama.

Unfortunately for Judy Goffman Cutler, it’s a true story. The FBI recently discovered that in 1989 the Newport art dealer profited from the sale of a Norman Rockwell painting that had been stolen from a gallery in Missouri 16 years earlier. The buyer? Steven Spielberg. Yes, that one.

So why has it taken so long for the FBI to crack the case and how come no one was ever arrested for the theft?

One explanation given is that the suspected art thief enjoyed federal protection because he had vital information about a major U.S. assassination — the slaying of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Instead of appearing on the big screen, this drama is being played out on location — in U.S. District Court in Nevada. Jack Solomon, whose gallery lost Rockwell’s Russian Schoolroom to thieves nearly 35 years ago when it was worth $25,000, is suing Spielberg for the return of the painting, now valued at $700,000. Russian Schoolroom is in Los Angeles, where the Academy Award-winning director and producer lives.

Goffman Cutler, meanwhile, is also fighting for the painting. She says that after the FBI announced it was stolen, she offered to extricate Spielberg from the controversy by giving him another Rockwell in exchange for Russian Schoolroom. She is also suing Solomon for $25 million for sullying her reputation and jeopardizing her business relationship with Spielberg. Solomon told the media she should have known the painting was stolen when she sold it to Spielberg.

“The clear implication of the statement made to the press was that Goffman Cutler was trafficking in stolen art and should have known she was doing so,” her lawsuit reads.

ON A RECENT DAY, the gates to a white, chateau-style mansion in Newport slowly swing open. Behind the wrought-iron fencing is Vernon Court, a Beaux Arts adaptation of a French estate, which occupies a full block of Bellevue Avenue, Newport’s famed Gilded Age promenade. The sprawling grounds feature a pool, manicured tiered gardens, and a park created by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of New York City’s Central Park.

This is the home of the National Museum of American Illustration, which Goffman Cutler and her husband, Laurence, founded in 2000 to honor what they call the “Golden Age of Illustration,” art specifically created for reproduction.

The swiveling gates open onto a short gravel driveway, which leads to the museum entrance, framed by tall white columns and a second-story veranda. Through the doorway is the Great Marble Hall, where Laurence Cutler greets a visitor and guides him past one of Rockwell’s most famous World War II works, Miss Liberty, portraying a star-spangled American woman wielding an array of tools in service of her country.

In the library, Cutler takes a seat and reflects on the worldwide publicity the case has generated — from newspapers and magazines that cover Clayton, Mo., where the painting was stolen in 1973, across the Atlantic to England, where both Spielberg and Rockwell are well known. Over the last several months, as a result of the tantalizing details surrounding Russian Schoolroom, it’s been all too common for the Cutlers to receive interview requests from the media. Fielding reporters’ questions comes naturally for the talkative Cutler, the museum’s chairman, and it’s a role that falls to him in between his frequent business trips across the U.S. and abroad.

“Friends have asked about it, art dealers have asked about it, and people in the art world have asked about it. We got lots of e-mail about it from all over the world,” he says. “It got a tremendous amount of attention because you have Spielberg, who is the most famous guy in movies, and you have Norman Rockwell, whose name is synonymous with apple pie and ice cream and baseball. And you have the word ‘theft.’ ”

IT’S SOMEWHAT IRONIC that a Rockwell has been caught up in such a maelstrom of controversy and conspiracy. The American illustrator is best known for his nostalgic scenes of simpler times, hundreds of which appeared on the folksy covers of the Saturday Evening Post.

Russian Schoolroom, painted in 1967, just six years before its theft, was inspired by Rockwell’s visit to the Soviet Union in the 1960s. It depicts students seated at their desks, looking in the direction of a bust of Lenin, except for one student gazing out a window.

Judy Goffman Cutler had an eye for Rockwell and the works of other accomplished American illustrators, such as N.C. Wyeth and Maxfield Parrish. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in fine arts, she began collecting the works of American illustrators, which weren’t greatly valued at the time. Soon she had so many works that friends would say her home looked like a museum, her husband says. In 1966, she opened the American Illustrators Gallery in New York City.

“She turned around one day and realized she made that end of the market,” Laurence Cutler says. “She became the art dealer to the stars and celebrities.… She built collections for Malcolm Forbes, George Lucas and Ross Perot and many museums.”

The Newport museum she would later establish with her husband lists Lucas, comedian/actress Whoopi Goldberg, TV celebrity Matt Lauer and editorial cartoonist Paul Szep among its board of directors, as well as the developer of the Carnegie Abbey Club in Portsmouth, Peter de Savary, and the man who has taken over and expanded the development of the town’s western shore, Brian O’Neill.

Spielberg began avidly collecting Rockwells as his movies, including E.T., Back to the Future and the Indiana Jones series, became box office blockbusters, making him a rich man. He also contributed to a new home for the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.

Spielberg met the Cutlers through his passion for Rockwell. They enjoyed not only a business relationship, but a friendship, too, Laurence Cutler says. He recalls traveling to California in the early 1990s to see Spielberg and Whoopi Goldberg, the director’s Pacific Palisades neighbor and another collector of American illustration. Cutler and Goffman, whose first marriages had ended, were continuing on to Las Vegas, and Cutler told Spielberg he was considering marrying Goffman there. Spielberg didn’t think it romantic enough.

“I had wanted to do a quick wedding and he talked me out of it,” says Laurence Cutler.

Years later, after marrying, the Cutlers moved to Newport and opened their nonprofit illustration museum. Then, 18 years after selling Spielberg Russian Schoolroom, an agency not known for its artistic appreciation contacted Goffman Cutler: It was the FBI.

EARLY ON THE morning of June 25, 1973, a man broke through the glass front door of Arts International Gallery, in Clayton, Mo., part of the greater St. Louis area, according to a police report. A witness saw the thief emerge with a painting seconds later and jump into a car.

When gallery staff arrived, they quickly realized what was missing: Rockwell’s Russian Schoolroom, an original, 16-by-37-inch oil-on-canvas. With the crime unsolved, Solomon, the gallery’s owner, collected $25,000 in insurance, according to court records.

In 1988, the painting surfaced at an auction in New Orleans. But there was no mention of its checkered past. Goffman bid $70,400 and took Russian Schoolroom back to her American Illustrators Gallery, in New York City. A year later, after advertising the painting for sale for $200,000, she sold it to Spielberg.

It wasn’t until 2004 that agents with the FBI’s Art Crime Team (ACT) learned from a tipster about the 1988 auction and the sale of the painting a year later. The agency posted a description and photograph of the painting on its Web site. Spielberg’s staff saw it and alerted him that the FBI considered his painting stolen and missing.

“Mr. Spielberg’s staff immediately used art market channels to bring the painting’s current location to the FBI’s attention,” the FBI announced in a news release earlier this year that would spark the international media coverage. “Mr. Spielberg purchased the painting in 1989 from a legitimate dealer and did not become aware it was stolen until last week.”

WHAT HAPPENED 34 years ago, however, was apparently a great deal more complicated than a simple smash-and-grab.

The break-in at Arts International joined a rash of similar crimes. A thief or thieves were targeting art owners in the St. Louis area. The thieves snatched silver statues of Charles Lindbergh from the St. Louis Museum of History and returned to strike Arts International again, stealing seven Rockwell lithographs.

The case led the police to focus on “a known police character … who had a reputation for stealing and fencing valuable art and antiques,” according to the FBI. A search warrant executed in 1976 at the St. Louis home of suspect Russell Byers recovered hundreds of thousands of dollars in art and other valuables, including the seven Rockwell lithographs, according to police reports. But missing from the loot was Russian Schoolroom.

The police brought charges against Byers. But after two suspects connected to the art theft ring were murdered 1978 and another refused to testify, prosecutors dropped the case, according to the St. Louis Riverfront Times. And curiously, around the same time, Byers had become remarkably useful to powerful federal officials, the alternative newsweekly reported.

The reason? He had been offered $50,000 to kill King, the civil-rights leader.

Byers’ tale intrigued officials in Washington, even 10 years after King’s assassination in 1968. But Byers wouldn’t talk for fear of incriminating himself. So in 1978, the House Select Committee on Assassinations granted him immunity. In exchange, Byers testified about a meeting he attended that was arranged by a hotel owner who stashed stolen goods for Byers.

Byers’ accomplice introduced him to a lawyer and business associate, John Sutherland, who belonged to the American Independent Party of segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace and who was a leader of the White Citizens Council of St. Louis.

“The three men met in a study that Byers described as decorated with Confederate flags and Civil War memorabilia… ,” reads a report of the House committee, according to the Riverfront Times. “Sutherland was wearing what appeared to Byers to be a Confederate colonel’s hat. After some social conversation, Byers asked Sutherland what he would have to do for the $50,000. Sutherland said he would have to kill, or arrange to have killed, Dr. Martin Luther King. Sutherland told him he belonged to a secret southern organization that had plenty of money.

Byers testified that he declined the offer from the two men. But, according to a New York Times article from 1978, the committee found enough circumstantial evidence to believe that the same bounty offered to Byers in St. Louis could possibly have motivated James Earl Ray, who was a prisoner in a nearby Missouri penitentiary (and whose brother, John Ray, led local efforts to elect Wallace president).

Ray escaped from the prison a year before King’s death and confessed to killing the minister. Despite recanting later, Ray was convicted at trial.

Ten years later, in 1988, a tip about the stolen Rockwell surfaced as the painting was being auctioned off in New Orleans. But an FBI investigation into the matter was stymied when agents were told that the original theft report was missing, according to the Riverfront Times. It wasn’t until last year that the FBI, treating the theft as a cold case, was able to get a copy of the report from the Clayton, Mo., police. Soon the investigation would lead federal agents to Hollywood.

JACK SOLOMON, who owned the now-defunct Arts International gallery and was Rockwell’s dealer until the artist’s death in 1978, wants Russian Schoolroom back. He is suing Spielberg in U.S. District Court in Nevada for the return of the painting and unspecified damages. The FBI, which was initially named in the lawsuit, has been dropped from the case.

Solomon is none too pleased with Goffman Cutler. He doesn’t believe she adequately researched whether Russian Schoolroom might have been stolen, especially since the FBI had reported it to the for-profit Art Loss Register, which maintains a database of purloined artwork.

“She should have known better,” he told the Riverfront Times. “She could have checked that — there’s been a record of this ever since the day it was stolen.”

He also told the newsweekly about his desire to reacquire the painting.

“I’m sure in two calls I could turn it over for X million dollars before the sun goes down,” he said.

Goffman Cutler, who has sold more than 300 Rockwells, defends her handling of the painting. Before acquiring it, according to her lawsuit, she contacted the Norman Rockwell museum, which had just completed a definitive catalog of the artist’s work. The catalog identified Russian Schoolroom’s location as “whereabouts unknown,” unlike other works listed as “stolen.”

She also sold the painting in a highly public manner, according to court papers. She put it in a traveling exhibition, showed it in New York City and featured it in a magazine advertisement. She even sent a notice to a parent gallery of Arts International, in New York, announcing that Russian Schoolroom was for sale.

Her lawsuit cites Solomon’s published remarks, noting that “the clear implication of the statement made to the press was that Goffman was trafficking in stolen art.”

“We are really angry about Solomon, who was sitting on his thumbs for 33 odd years,” says Laurence Cutler.

Goffman Cutler is also suing the Art Loss Register. The business, her lawyer contends, illegally sought to coerce her into settling with Solomon, by threatening to tarnish her reputation and have her investigated by the FBI. Goffman Cutler is seeking damages of $5 million in profits from business she says she stood to do with Spielberg in the future, $10 million for damage to her reputation and $10 million for defamation.

Goffman Cutler wants the court to affirm that her New York City business, The American Illustrators Gallery, has legally acquired the painting from Spielberg.

“We have exchanged one of our paintings, not from our museum collection, a painting of comparable or higher value, approximately the same size, painted in the same year, and both were published in Look magazine. He is very happy with that. And we are very happy to take him out of this circus,” says Laurence Cutler. Since the FBI “doesn’t want [Russian Schoolroom] to cross state lines, Steven is holding it.”

If Goffman Cutler’s private gallery succeeds in acquiring Russian Schoolroom, it will probably be loaned to the National Museum of American Illustration, in Newport, says Laurence Cutler. The painting would travel to China for a temporary exposition at the Shanghai Art Museum, he says, and then it would probably find a home at the Bellevue Avenue museum.

“There is now interest in seeing this painting ‘in the flesh’ so to speak, the world over,” he says.