Norman Rockwell artwork allegedly ‘hidden’ in White House for decades, lawsuit claims

One of Norman Rockwell’s most iconic paintings is of a happy family gathered for Thanksgiving dinner. Now a family feud has sparked a legal battle after one of its members spotted original drawings by the artist hanging in the White House on a 2017 television program – artwork he believed he owned.

The saga of the disputed artwork began in 1943, when Rockwell created a set of sketches called “Do You Want to See the President” published in the Saturday Evening Post, where he worked as an illustrator for 47 years. That same year, Rockwell gifted the illustrations to Stephen T. Early Sr., who served as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s press secretary, according to legal documents.

But what happened next — and who owned the art — has become a matter of contention, with Early’s descendants fighting over the four pieces of art, which depict a variety of people from military officers to senators waiting to see FDR.

Artist Norman Rockwell depicted scenes at the White House in a series of illustrations from 1943 titled “So You Want to See the President.” Now a lawsuit alleges that a descendant of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s press secretary hid the illustrations in the White House to “launder” the art and gain sole ownership.

Legal documents

While watching a 2017 television interview of former President Donald Trump, Thomas A. Early, one of Stephen Early’s three children, noticed the Rockwell family hanging out in a West Wing hall of the White House, according to a lawsuit filed Monday in District Court of the US for the Eastern District of Virginia.

By watching the television show, according to the lawsuit, Thomas A. Early “learned for the first time that the Rockwells were in the White House.” Died early in 2020.

While it’s unclear how the family feud will be resolved, one thing is certain: The Rockwells are probably worth a hefty sum. One of Rockwell’s paintings sold a decade ago for 46 million dollars — though the pieces in question are unlikely to yield anything close, given that they’re sketches and blueprints.

Washing artwork?

The artwork was supposed to be kept at the home of Thomas A. Early’s sister, Helen Early Elam, where the family agreed to keep it, the lawsuit alleges.

Instead, it is alleged that Helen Early Elam’s son, William Elam, “took Rockwell to the White House to conceal the removal of the artwork … and hid Rockwell for a considerable period of time to ‘launder’ or “washes” ownership of a work of art in an attempt to gain sole ownership,” the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit alleges that Elam took the artwork to the White House in 1978 — during the Carter administration — “where it was loaned, with the lender listed as “Lender Anonymous.”’

After watching a 2017 television program, Thomas A. Early “immediately informed” the White House curator that he owned one-third of the Rockwells and that he intended his share to be inherited by his children after his death, the report said. the case.

The lawsuit does not accuse the White House or other officials of wrongdoing. The White House declined to comment on the “private dispute.” In 2022, Rockwell’s work was taken down and replaced with a portrait of President Joe Biden, according to Politico.

“Sole owner”

In a separate lawsuit, William Elam claimed that he was actually the sole owner of the artwork.

According to Elam’s suit, Stephen Early, FDR’s press secretary, claimed he gave the illustrations to his daughter Helen in 1949 when she graduated from Pratt Institute in New York. She then gifted the work to her son William, the lawsuit alleges.

Elam’s lawsuit also claims that the estate of his uncle, Thomas A. Early, who spotted the artwork on television in 2017, failed to include the illustrations in his inventory of assets after his uncle’s death in 2020.

The lawsuit, which alleges that Elam hid the art in the White House, is seeking $350,000 in damages, as well as a ruling that ownership be shared by the family’s descendants, while Elam’s lawsuit wants the court to rule that the artwork belongs only him.

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