March 3, 2007 in Nation/World

Stolen Rockwell in Spielberg collection

Daisy Nguyen Associated Press
 

LOS ANGELES – A Norman Rockwell work stolen from suburban St. Louis more than three decades ago was found in Steven Spielberg’s art collection, the FBI announced Friday.

The painting, Rockwell’s “Russian Schoolroom,” was snatched during a late-night burglary at a gallery in Clayton, Mo., on June 25, 1973. The Oscar-winning filmmaker purchased the painting in 1989 from a legitimate dealer and didn’t know it was stolen until last week, the FBI said in a statement.

Spielberg’s staff alerted federal authorities, and an FBI agent and an art expert 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.

The oil-on-canvas painting shows children in a classroom with a bust of communist leader Vladimir Lenin. Spielberg is cooperating with the FBI and will retain possession of the painting until its “disposition can be determined,” the bureau said.

In 2004, the FBI’s newly formed Art Crime Team initiated an investigation to recover the work.

Mary Ellen Shortland worked at the long-closed Clayton Art Gallery when the painting was stolen 34 years ago. She recalled Friday that the gallery was holding a Rockwell exhibit, mainly of lithographs, at the time. The gallery’s parent company, Circle Fine Art in Chicago, arranged for the Rockwell original to be on hand to draw visitors to the show.

Shortland said a Missouri client bought the painting for $25,000, but agreed to let it remain on display. Just a few nights later, someone smashed the gallery’s glass door and escaped with the painting.

There was no sign of the work for years. Then in 1988, it was auctioned in New Orleans.

Shortland recalled that she saw the painting again in an advertisement for a small New York gallery, since closed, about 15 years ago. She said she contacted Circle, but “Russian Schoolroom” was not recovered. Shortland, now the owner of Creative Art Gallery and Picture Framing, estimated that the painting could be worth “hundreds of thousands of dollars” today, if it is in excellent condition.

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