Steven Spielberg and the Norman Rockwell painting that got away
More than 20 Norman Rockwell paintings belonging to Steven Spielberg have until July to get ready for their close-up, which will come when they're hung in a special exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington -- along with more than 30 other Rockwells from the collection of his fellow filmmaker-to-the-masses, George Lucas.
Then there's the one sitting in climate-controlled sequestration, somewhere in Las Vegas, and no telling when it'll be seen again. It's called "Russian Schoolroom," and it belonged to Spielberg from 1989 until 2007, when he and it became unexpectedly caught up in a sequence of events that, if turned into a film scenario, would require an eminently skillful director to keep the audience from losing the story's thread (many of its elements, including a surprising detour drawing a possible link between the stolen Rockwell and a plot to kill Martin Luther King Jr., were woven together here by the Riverfront Times, a St. Louis weekly).
The film's opening scene would be set in 1973. First we'd see the painting itself, a horizontal image of a roomful of Soviet schoolboys seated at their desks, eyes trained dutifully on a white, jut-jawed bust of Vladimir I. Lenin -- except for a lone dreamer (or dissident) whom Rockwell shows letting his mind and gaze wander. The camera would pull back, and we'd see "Russian Schoolroom" being snatched from its gallery wall in Clayton, Mo .
Cut to 1988, where an auctioneer in New Orleans slams the gavel, and the same painting is sold to a New York art dealer for about $70,000. She shows the painting publicly, advertises it, and by the following year it's hanging on Spielberg's wall.
Next big scene: in February 2007, an assistant to the film director sits at a computer and notices that "Russian Schoolroom" is listed on an FBI website of stolen art works. Spielberg immediately contacts the feds; they thank him for being a good citizen and tell him to hold the painting for safekeeping until they can figure out whom it belongs to.
Soon, Spielberg and the FBI are being sued in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas by Nevada resident Jack Solomon, who had loaned the painting to the Missouri gallery whence "Russian Schoolroom" was stolen. Solomon, a lithographer and art dealer who worked with Rockwell to produce prints of the artist's work, claims the painting still belongs to him, and he wants it back.
By the end of 2007, Judy Goffman Cutler, the dealer who'd bought "Russian Schoolroom" in New Orleans and sold it to Spielberg for a reported $200,000, makes a proposal to the filmmaker, who is a longtime steady client. She will take back title to "Russian Schoolroom" from him and fight it out in court with Solomon to secure ownership. In exchange, she gives Spielberg a comparable, socially aware Rockwell painting from the same mid-1960s period, "Peace Corps in Ethiopia."
The judge in Las Vegas dismisses Spielberg and the FBI from the case, finding them without fault. He also orders "Russian Schoolroom" transferred into court custody. There the painting remains, with the contesting parties splitting the cost of keeping it in climate-controlled storage while their legal joust goes forward.
"We wanted to make Steven whole," said Laurence Cutler, husband of Judy Goffman Cutler, and co-founder with her of the National Museum of American Illustration in Newport, R.I., on Friday. "He's a client for decades of Judy's, and to get dragged into a case is not what clients buying paintings want."
Cutler said it's not so much the monetary value of "Russian Schoolroom" that's at stake for his wife -- sources close to the 2007 investigation estimated it then at $700,000 to $1 million -- but her desire to vindicate her reputation after Solomon criticized her for not having realized the painting was stolen goods when she bought it, then sold it to Spielberg.
Cutler said the case is scheduled to be tried in January if no settlement can be reached to "rectify the blight that this may have put on Judy's reputation." Spielberg didn't escape the legal battle unscathed: according to the Las Vegas Sun, he asked the court to order the remaining parties in the case to refund him his attorneys fees of more than $47,000. But Gene Brockland, an attorney for Goffman Cutler, said the judge turned him down.
With "Russian Schoolroom" out of view until further notice, our art-theft cinematic saga could end with a montage: first a shot of "Peace Corps in Ethiopia," now hanging in the Nassau County Museum of Art in Roslyn Harbor, N.Y., where it's on loan from Spielberg as part of "Norman Rockwell: American Imagist," a traveling exhibition curated and organized by Judy Goffman Cutler.
Last, the camera might pan across two of the paintings that Spielberg will lend to the Smithsonian American Art Museum for the show, "Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg." Both are from 1959, a big one on canvas and a smaller study on paper. And both, fittingly enough, are titled "The Jury."
-- Mike Boehm
Photos: Norman Rockwell's "Russian Schoolroom"; George Lucas (l) and Steven Spielberg at USC. Norman Rockwell's "Peace Corps in Ethiopia" Credits: "Russian Schoolroom" handout art; Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times; "Peace Corps in Ethiopia," © 2009 National Museum of American Illustration Newport RI; courtesy of Archives of American Illustrators Gallery, NYC.