ST. LOUIS, M.O., March 31, 2006 - A painting by American artist Norman Rockwell that was stolen more than 30 years ago was sold in 1988, and federal officials now are trying to find out who bought it.
FBI officials said yesterday that the agency's Art Crime Team, created in 2004, has several leads in the theft of Rockwell's Russian Schoolroom, which was stolen in June 1973 from a suburban St. Louis exhibition and is believed to be worth as much as $200,000 (€165,000) today.
"What's weird is we didn't know it was stolen," said Linda Pero, curator of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
"I was really surprised when the FBI called me."
Pero's museum passed up a chance to bid on the painting in 1988 when it sold for $70,400 at an auction in New Orleans.
It is believed the painting was advertised for sale in 1989 at a Rockwell exhibition in New York, but nobody made the connection until recently, officials said.
"The experts have said there are no other copies of this oil painting," FBI Assistant Special Agent Steven Gomez said.
Russian Schoolroom, commissioned by Look magazine in 1967, depicts Russian schoolchildren at their desks looking at a statue of Vladimir Lenin. The communist leader appears to be the teacher at the front of the class.
"It's very typical of one of his journalistic illustrations, much like the work he did on the Peace Corps," Pero said.
A St. Louis Globe-Democrat news article from June 26, 1973, said the thieves smashed a glass door of the museum and took only the oil painting. Priced at $20,000, it was easily the most valuable item in the Rockwell exhibition.
"That painting is known all over the country. There's no possible way that they can unload that painting," Marjorie Pond, the director for the art gallery, told the Globe-Democrat after the break-in.
But that assessment turned out to be wrong.
Pero said an insurance company could be to blame for not reporting the theft properly or investigating it. She also said there should be a record of who bought the painting in New Orleans.
Rockwell died in 1978, and that same year more of his paintings were stolen from the Elayne Gallery outside Minneapolis.
Those were recovered in 2001 at an art dealer's farmhouse in Brazil, according to FBI records. Three of the paintings, worth up to $1 million, were returned to the owner.
Bonnie Lindberg, who ran the Elayne Gallery with her mother, said no one was ever charged in the crime.
Now an art appraiser, Lindberg said she has never seen Russian Schoolroom, but today it could be worth up to three times what it sold for in 1988, possibly $200,000.
Much of Rockwell's fame resulted from his magazine cover illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post.
On the Net:
FBI Art Crime Team: http://www.fbi.gov/hq/cid/arttheft/arttheft.htm