LOS ANGELES — Norman Rockwell paintings often resonate because of their depictions of everyday life, but the life of one of his paintings has been anything but mundane.
“Russian Schoolroom,” a Rockwell painting stolen from a gallery in the St. Louis suburb of Clayton, Mo., more than three decades ago, was found in Oscar-winning filmmaker Steven Spielberg’s art collection, the FBI announced Friday.
Spielberg purchased the painting in 1989 from a legitimate dealer and didn’t know it was stolen until his staff spotted its image last week on an FBI Web site listing stolen works of art, the bureau said in a statement.
After Spielberg’s staff brought it to the attention of authorities, an FBI agent and an art expert from the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino inspected the painting at one of Spielberg’s offices and confirmed its authenticity Friday morning. Early FBI estimates put the painting’s value at $700,000, officials said.
Spielberg is cooperating with the FBI and will retain possession of the Russian Schoolroom until its “disposition can be determined,” the bureau said.
“The second anybody said, ‘I think we have that painting,’ (our) office got a hold of the FBI,” said Spielberg’s spokesman, Marvin Levy.
Stolen from gallery
The oil-on-canvas painting shows children in a classroom with a bust of communist leader Vladimir Lenin. It was nabbed in a gallery heist and then resurfaced briefly in legitimate art forums before disappearing again. At the time of the theft, the work was 16 inches by 37 inches.
Mary Ellen Shortland, who worked at the long-closed Clayton Art Gallery, recalled Friday that someone from Missouri paid $25,000 for the painting after seeing it during a Rockwell exhibition featuring mostly lithographs.
The client agreed to keep it on display, she said, but a few nights later someone smashed the gallery’s glass door and escaped with the painting.
“That was all they took. That’s what they wanted, that painting,” Shortland recalled.
The gallery refunded the client’s money, and there was no sign of the work for years. Then in 1988, it was auctioned in New Orleans.
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In 2004, the FBI’s newly formed Art Crime Team initiated an investigation to recover the work after determining it had been advertised for sale at a Rockwell exhibit in New York in 1989.
It wasn’t immediately known whether Spielberg purchased the painting at that New York exhibit.
Spielberg is a longtime Rockwell collector. He helped found the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., where he is also on the board of trustees.
“He’s certainly one of the collectors of Rockwell,” said Levy, who wasn’t sure how many of the artist’s paintings Spielberg owns. “We have a few in our office on the Universal lot.”
Rockwell’s works often capture moments from everyday life, such as a boy watching his father shave, family members saying grace over a Thanksgiving turkey or a young girl having a dress fitting.
The artist died at age 84 in 1978. While “Russian Schoolroom” appeared in Look magazine, the artist is best known for the covers he did for The Saturday Evening Post. More than 300 Rockwell creations appeared on the cover of the publication.
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