Family members are fighting a custody battle for possession of four original Norman Rockwell sketches, with one side claiming the artwork was stolen and stashed away in the White House for decades in a plot to establish sole ownership.
The art dates back to 1943, when Rockwell made a series of watercolors and sketches about the executive wing at the White House, showing people ranging from soldiers to lawmakers sitting on chairs and sofas while waiting to see then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt, The Wall Street Journal reported.
The montage, "So You Want to See the President" appeared in the Nov. 13, 1943, edition of The Saturday Evening Post, and Rockwell gave the four sketches in question to press secretary Stephen Early.
Nobody at the White House is implicated in the lawsuit, filed by heirs of Early's two sons who say their late sister, Helen Early Elam, broke her promise to hang on to the sketches after the deaths of their parents, with their father dying in 1951 and their mother in 1978.
The legal action, filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, alleges Elam told her son, William, to loan the pieces to the White House art collection in July 1978, when President Jimmy Carter was in office.
A preliminary hearing is scheduled next month in the case.
The sons' heirs are accusing the Elams of trying to hide the art and said they assumed the sketches were in storage.
But, fast-forwarding to 2017, Early's younger son, Thomas, said he was watching President Donald Trump being interviewed when he spotted the sketches hanging in a hall in the West Wing.
"I've heard of people hiding secrets at the White House, but never art," attorney Robert Goldman, who represents Thomas Early's two sons and the sister-in-law of his late brother, who was also named Stephen Early.
However, the artwork had been at the White House for some time.
Jeremy Clowe, manager of media services for the Norman Rockwell Museum said in 2010 the "So You Want to See the President" series was on loan to the White House, and view in the building's West Wing, according to a Saturday Evening Post story about a collection of Rockwell art on display while President Barack Obama was in office.
Meanwhile, the relatives retained Goldman and art-crime investigator Robert Wittman after Thomas Early died in 2020.
Elam's lawyer, David Fiske, said the "notion that she lent these works to a building as public as the White House in order to hide them is ridiculously bogus."
Mrs. Elam and her son did not steal anything, Fiske said, pointing out her father, the press secretary, gave her the Rockwell sketches in 1949 when she graduated from college.
He said that she, not her son, loaned the artwork to the White House in 1978, and the loan was not anonymous.
She also lent the sketches to an art show in San Fransisco in 1980 and she gave the artwork to her son in 1999, Fiske said.
The White House is not commenting and the White House Historical Association, which oversees the permanent art collection has deferred any comments to the press secretary's office and legal counsel.
Elam said through his attorney that his uncle had not asked about the whereabouts of the Rockwell sketches until he saw them on television. Thomas Early at the age of 83, wrote the White House to seek the return of the artwork.
However, last summer, the White House took down the sketches and returned them to Elam, who is holding them while the family works out the custody issues, Goldman said.
Fiske, though, maintains the White House returned the sketches to the rightful owner.
Now, there are large photos of President Joe Biden hanging where the Rockwells had been.
Original Rockwell art pieces sell as top-priced art, including when filmmaker George Lucas snapped up his 1951 painting "Saying Grace" in 2013 for $46 million.
Rockwell's art on paper also goes for premium prices. The record for that style is for a 1964 piece, "The Problem We All Deal With," showing a young Ruby Bridges walking to school with U.S. deputy marshals, which sold for $854,000.
The Roosevelt-era illustrations have not been appraised but the heirs of Early's sons are demanding the artwork and $350,000 in punitive damages.
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