Stolen Rockwell and Spielberg and Theft Databases


Steven Spielberg has discovered a stolen Norman Rockwell painting, Russian Schoolroom in his art collection. The work was listed on the FBI’s art crimes web site. There don’t seem to be any good images of this work on the web. This is a small thumbnail. In terms of the original theft, the FBI website states the following:

On June 25, 1973, an original Norman Rockwell painting, entitled Russian Schoolroom, was stolen during a late night burglary in Clayton, Missouri. The painting was part of a Norman Rockwell Exhibit sponsored by the Chicago office of the Circle Galleries, later known as Arts International Galleries. At the time of the theft, the Russian Schoolroom, oil on canvas, measured 16″ X 37″, and was presented in a 2′ x 4′ frame of dull gold-white molding. This painting may also be referred to as The Russian Classroom or Russian Schoolchildren.

Records for the Russian Schoolroom indicate that after the theft in 1973 and prior to 1988, the painting’s location was unknown. In October 1988 Russian Schoolroom was sold at auction in New Orleans, Louisiana. Records revealed that at that time, the painting was associated with Circle Galleries (Chicago) and the Danenburg Gallery (New York). Neither gallery exists today.

Recent information determined that the same Russian Schoolroom was allegedly advertised for sale at a Norman Rockwell Exhibit in New York, circa 1989.

In July 2004, upon receipt of the information above, the FBI’s newly formed Art Crime Team initiated an investigation to locate and recover the Russian Schoolroom.

It seems a member of Spielberg’s staff came across the site. The FBI was then notified. There is no indication that Spielberg had any knowledge of the work’s theft when he purchased it. Spielberg is a well-known collector of Rockwell. What this example does illustrate is a need for better and more comprehensive art databases. If collectors can check a work against one comprehensive database, then this kind of mistake will surely be avoided, and the incentive for stealing art will decrease dramatically.

The Art Loss Register is the most prominent of the stolen art databases. Here is a recent article on the work it does. It has been responsible for a number of high-profile recoveries. However, I am a bit skeptical because it is a closed database. It costs about $50 per search, and not everyone can search it. Julian Radcliffe, the ALR’s chairman has said in interviews in the past that the reason the database is not public is it would allow the thieves to know the status of a work they have stolen. That may be true, but I’m still a bit skeptical. If it became routine to post a picture of your painting on a free, easy-to-use website, I think the same goals would be furthered.

It seems a company may have designed a way to use simple camera phones to compare a work to a stolen art database:

Thanks to a new development from the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Systems and Design Technology IPK, the investigator can now simply take a photo of the art object with his cell phone and send it instantly to a central server. The researchers’ new image analysis system automatically compares this picture with the user’s database. The system identifies similar objects on the basis of visual features such as their shape, outline, color or texture, and returns a list of the top ten closest hits to the cell phone in a matter of seconds. If the picture is among the works in the database, the art detective can react immediately. “The system is remarkably easy to operate,” says Dr. Bertram Nickolay, head of the department for security systems. “Since it was built mostly from standard modules, it’s also a cost-effective solution.” Furthermore, the system is immune to interference factors such as a poor photograph of the work of art. Reflections caused by flash photography or by excessive brightness have no effect on the image analysis in the central server.

This could work, and it could work well. I imagine that the first company which figures out how to make a simple and easy database will earn a lot of money, and will do wonders for insuring the legitimacy of the art trade. My personal preference would be to have a free system similar to wikipedia, which allows anyone to use and access the site. Until there is a comprehensive database which ties together all of these various databases though, we will continue to see people unwittingly purchasing stolen works.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

3 thoughts on “Stolen Rockwell and Spielberg and Theft Databases”

  1. Why is it that everyone is scared to critersize Mr Spielberg for his lack of due dilligence?

    Any other art collector who was caught with this picture would certainly be questioned and would have to justify their possession of a picture that could be traced by a simple Google search of the title.

    One law for the powerful and one for the rest of us.

    Consider the facts

    Spielberg is an avid Rockwell collector

    Spielberg helped create the Norman Rockwell museum in Stockbridge Mass

    Spielberg universally regarded as first class authority on Rockwell

    A quick google would have told him his painting was stolen

    FBI closing in on Spielberg as buyer of Rockwell

    Spielberg minion spots Rockwell on FBI wanted list, contacts feds

    Was Spielberg tipped off that Feds closing in so his staff could strike first and plead innocence?

    Conclusion:

    At the very least this information and circumstances should be forwarded to a grand jury for them to decide if any complicity was displayed.

    Spielberg may have shown to be complacent in not checking his Rockwell was stolen.

    Spielberg is one of the finest minds of our time, a world class authority and highly intelligent human being.

    Did Spielberg knowingly buy the stolen Rockwell and decide to, as Senator Kennedy would put it,

    “Drive off that bridge when he gets to it”

    meaning Spielberg would address the problem when it appears.

    Outcome, Spielberg will make a payment to however is deemed rightful owner and he will keep the Rockwell.

    Moral of this tale, Rich, powerful Americans can act as they want, collect stolen artworks knowingly and pay later for legal title.

    Whatever politics Spielberg has is irrelevant, dishonesty applies to both Republicans and Democrats.

  2. Well, nothing in the news reports indicates any wrongful activity by Spielberg. I seriously doubt he is received preferential treatment, especially considering he alerted the authorities soon after discovering the work had been stolen.

    It seems likely that he will return or compensate the original victim. Far more interesting are the implications for the market itself, which seems to have trouble operation without innocent purchasers buying stolen works.

  3. Art Hostage, why don’t you become more informed. I read your incorrect statements and cringe.
    I called the Art Loss Register and they DO have the Vermeer listed.
    Bakwin has so much money he didn’t need to sell the Cezanne to pay the ALR fee. He sold it along with some other works in a family related settlement. You have a real talent. if only you dealt in facts instead of libelous mistatments.

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