A Series of Norman Rockwell Illustrations That Once Hung in the White House Is at the Center of a Legal Battle Between Family Members

Was the White House used to steal a series of Norman Rockwell illustrations?

That’s the central contention of a knotty new lawsuit, which alleges that the descendants of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s longtime press secretary lent a series of four Rockwells to the White House in an effort to conceal ownership of the artworks, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal. (The White House has not been accused of any wrongdoing.)

Rockwell created the sketches and watercolors upon visiting the presidential home in 1943. The series, called “You Want to See the President,” depicts various Americans—soldiers, senators, a Miss America pageant winner—waiting in the executive wing for some face time with Roosevelt. They jointly ran in the November 13, 1943 issue of The Saturday Evening Post.

After finishing the illustrations, the artist gifted them to FDR’s press secretary, Stephen Early—who also appeared in one of the sketches.

For decades—and seven presidential administrations—Rockwell’s pieces hung in the White House. But that was news to the heirs of the press secretary’s son, Thomas Early, who spotted the artworks on the wall of a West Wing hallway while watching a 2017 television interview with then-President Donald Trump. 

Suspecting that his nephew, William Elam III, had lent the illustrations without the family’s permission, Early requested that they be taken down from the White House walls. When Early died in 2020, the illustrations where still on view at the residence.

It wasn’t until last year that the White House quietly removed the Rockwells, replacing them with several photographic portraits of President Joe Biden, Politico reported at the time. But, once taken down, the “You Want to See the President” illustrations were returned to Elam, not the direct relatives of Early. 

An illustration from Norman Rockwell’s 1943 series, You Want to See the President. Courtesy of the U.S. District Court for Eastern Virginia.

Now, a contentious legal debate over ownership of the pieces has turned the various family members against each other.

In February, Elam filed a complaint in Virginia District Court alleging that he was entitled to sole ownership of the Rockwell works. The filing explained that Stephen Early, the former press secretary, gifted them to his daughter, Helen Early Elam, in 1949, and that she in turn gave them to her son, William Elam III, who lent them to the White House in July 1978.

Elam III is asking the court to award him ownership of the illustrations for good. 

But this week, Thomas Early’s sister and sons filed a counterclaim against Elam III, in which they argued that Helen Elam only owned a one-third interest in the Rockwell sketches and thus could not legally pass them on to her son. 

The counterclaim further alleged that “William Elam took the Rockwells to the White House to conceal his removal of the artwork from his grandmother’s house and to hide the Rockwells for a significant time period to ‘launder’ or ‘wash’ the ownership of artwork, in the effort to obtain sole ownership.”

Early’s heirs are similarly seeking ownership of the Rockwell artworks, as well as $350,000 in punitive damages. 

It’s unclear how Early’s heirs arrived at that figure, though it does not necessarily reflect the value of the artworks. 

Rockwell’s paintings have consistently fetched seven and eight figures at auction in recent years, according to Midnight Publishing Group’s Price Database, but works on paper haven’t been valued as highly by the market. The record price for one of the artist’s paper pieces is $854,500 for a study for his 1964 oil, The Problem We All Live With, depicting Ruby Bridges walking into her newly desegregated elementary school, which sold at Sotheby’s in 2010.

Attorneys for Elam III and Early’s heirs did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 


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A U.S. Judge Dealt a Partial Victory to Sotheby’s in a Long-Running Fraud Case Brought by Russian Billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev

A U.S. District Court judge ruled largely in favor of Sotheby’s in its efforts to dismiss Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev’s lawsuit against the auction house. The case is part of the art collector’s years-long legal battle with Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier, whom Rybolovlev says defrauded him of $1 billion in inflated art deals, and claims that Sotheby’s played a role.

The plaintiff, which is named as Accent Delight International Ltd., a holding company controlled by Rybolovlev, argued that the auction house “aided and abetted Bouvier in committing fraud and breaching his fiduciary duties,” according to a summary from the judge. Specifically, Sotheby’s was said to have helped Bouvier acquire 15 works of art for which Rybolovlev paid in excess of $1 billion—hundreds of millions more than Bouvier had paid. 

While Sotheby’s won dismissal of most of the fraud claims, it still could face some issues at trial, namely on the question of whether Sotheby’s aided Bouvier’s allegedly fraudulent sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvatore Mundi. Bouvier acquired the work for $83 million in 2013 and then immediately sold it to Rybolovlev for $127 million. In 2017, Rybolovlev auctioned the work at Christie’s, where it sold for a stunning $450 million—becoming the most expensive work ever sold at auction. (It was reportedly bought by Saudi Arabian royal Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud.)

Rybolovlev also said that Sotheby’s aided Bouvier’s allegedly fraudulent sales of Rene Magritte’s Le Domaine d’Arnheim and Gustav Klimt’s Wasserschlangen II, as well Amedeo Modigliani’s Tête.

A composite image of the Salvator Mundibefore and after restoration. The work and its controversial attribution to Leonardo da Vinci is the subject of the documentary film The Lost Leonardo, directed by Andreas Koefoed. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures.

A composite image of the Salvator Mundi before and after restoration. The work and its controversial attribution to Leonardo da Vinci is the subject of the documentary film The Lost Leonardo, directed by Andreas Koefoed. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures.

“Sotheby’s is pleased that the court’s decision on summary judgment dismissed the majority of plaintiffs’ claims for lack of evidence,” a representative for the auction house told Midnight Publishing Group News in a statement. “The court also rejected plaintiff’s own motion for summary judgment in its entirety. Sotheby’s will continue to defend this case vigorously and looks forward to prevailing on the remainder of the case at trial.”

Rybolovlev’s attorney, Dan Kornstein, said in a statement that the judge, Jesse Furman, “carefully analyzed the facts and agreed with many of our arguments. Although not all transactions involving Sotheby’s survived the summary judgment, our remaining claims account for over $200 million of damages inflicted to our clients. These are very important episodes of the case, and we are looking forward to jury trial.”

Representatives for Bouvier, who is not a party to this lawsuit, did not comment on the ruling.

Judge Furman wrote a recap of the dispute before laying out the reasoning for his ruling, noting that between 2002 and 2014 Rybolovlev spent approximately $2 billion to acquire a world-class art collection, comprised of masterpieces by the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri Matisse, “and other greats.”

“At some point thereafter, they discovered that Yves Bouvier, an art broker who assisted in acquiring the works, had cheated them by buying the works himself for one price and charging them another price—millions or tens of millions of dollars higher. That discovery has spawned litigation around the world, mostly between plaintiffs and Bouvier, but some involving others. This case is in the latter category.”

Rybolovlev asked the court to strike the entirety of a deposition of Bouvier taken in Switzerland, arguing that Bouvier’s oral testimony is inadmissible in part because he relied on pre-written answers. The judge largely denied that claim.

Bouvier has argued at various points that he wasn’t acting as Rybolovlev’s agent, but instead bought the paintings on his own and resold them to him, which would potentially eliminate a contractual or fiduciary obligation.

Sotheby’s also successfully requested that part of the testimony of another expert witness for the plaintiffs, art dealer Guy Stair-Sainty be blocked. However, Rybolovlev’s request to bar testimony from a Gurr-Johns expert acting on behalf of Sotheby’s was denied.

Perhaps tellingly, the judge included a line toward the end of the ruling, noting that, for now, “the court is of the view that the parties should try to settle this case without the need for a trial that would be expensive, risky, and potentially embarrassing to both sides.”

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Hermès Wins Its Lawsuit Against the Digital Artist Who Made ‘MetaBirkins,’ Setting a Precedent for NFT Copyright Cases

Hermès, the French luxury brand behind the famously pricey Birkin handbag, scored a legal victory today over a digital artist known as Mason Rothschild, who produced an NFT titled MetaBirkin.

A federal jury returned a verdict against the artist today, following a five-day trial, deciding that the artist violated Hermès’s Birkin trademark rights.

“Great day for big brands. Terrible day for artists and the First Amendment,” said the artist’s lead counsel Rhett Millsaps in a statement.

“This is not the end of this case,” he told Midnight Publishing Group News in an email.

Rothschild, referring to the jurors, said: “Take nine people off the street right now and ask them to tell you what art is but the kicker is whatever they say will now become the undisputed truth. That’s what happened today.”

The jury awarded Hermès $133,000 in damages and also found the artist’s NFTs aren’t protected speech under the First Amendment.

Attorneys and a representative for Hermès did not comment following the verdict. 

The case was closely watched since it is the first major test of how NFTs, which have exploded in popularity in recent years, should be considered in the context of copyright law. One expert predicted “a chilling effect on NFT artists,” as a result of the decision, according to Bloomberg News.

As Midnight Publishing Group News reported earlier this year, similar disputes surrounding ownership have popped up over a series of unauthorized NFT photos of Olive Garden restaurants and Quentin Tarantino’s NFTs from Pulp Fiction.

In December 2021, Hermès sent the artist a cease and desist letter. The MetaBirkins were removed from OpenSea’s primary market around the same time.

In the MetaBirkin project, the artist reimagined the designer bags with dyed fake fur—a move that, according to the MetaBirkins website, was “inspired by the acceleration of fashion’s ‘fur free’ initiatives and embrace of alternative textiles.”

A disclaimer at the bottom of the site read: “We are not affiliated, associated, authorized, endorsed by, or in any way officially connected with the HERMES, or any of its subsidiaries or its affiliates.” In the lawsuit it eventually filed, Hermès asserted that the disclaimer actually made matters worse by “excessively” using the brand’s name and “unnecessarily” linking to its website.

Rothschild’s post-verdict statement continued: “A multibillion-dollar luxury fashion house who says they ‘care’ about art and artists but feel they have the right to choose what art IS and who IS an artist. Not because of what they create but because their CV doesn’t scream artist with a pedigree from a world-class art school. That’s what happened today.

A broken justice system that doesn’t allow an art expert to speak on art but allows economists to speak on it. That’s what happened today.

What happened today was wrong. What happened today will continue to happen if we don’t continue to fight. This is far from over.”

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The Heir of a German-Jewish Collector Is Suing the Guggenheim for the Return of a Prized Picasso Painting—Or $150 Million

The heir of a prominent German-Jewish family is suing New York’s Guggenheim Museum for the return of a prized Pablo Picasso painting, which he says was sold under the threat of Nazi persecution 85 years ago.  

A lawsuit filed January 20 in Manhattan Supreme Court alleges that the painting, Woman Ironing (1904), was sold under duress in 1938 as its owner, Karl Adler, rushed to flee Nazi-run Germany with his wife, Rosi Jacobi. The plaintiffs in the case, which include one of Adler and Jacobi’s direct descendants—Thomas Bennigson—and numerous Jewish charities, are seeking the return of the artwork or $100 to $200 million in damages.

The case, which was filed under the provisions of the 2016 Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act, may come down to whether or not the artwork was determined to have been sold illegally or through extortion.

“[Adler] would not have disposed of the painting at the time and price that he did, but for the Nazi persecution to which he and his family had been, and would continue to be, subjected,” the filing reads.

A general view of the exterior facade of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Photo by Ben Hider/Getty Images.

A view of the exterior facade of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Photo by Ben Hider/Getty Images.

The board chairman of a major leather manufacturer, Adler acquired the Blue Period painting in 1916, from the Munich-based gallery owner Heinrich Thannhauser. Twenty-two years later, the businessman and his wife fled Germany amid increasing threats of persecution from the Nazis.

The couple planned to immigrate to Argentina and needed money to cover the cost of short-term visas and the Nazi-instituted flight tax. As part of an effort to liquidate his assets, Adler sold Woman Ironing to Heinrich Thannhauser’s son, Justin Thannhauser, for $1,552—or roughly $32,000 today.  

The heir’s complaint characterizes the sale as “forced” and its price as “well below” market value.

“Thannhauser, as a leading art dealer of Picasso, must have known he acquired the painting for a fire sale price,” the suit says. “At the time of the sale, Thannhauser was buying comparable masterpieces from other German Jews who were fleeing from Germany and profiting from their misfortune.”

“Thannhauser was well-aware of the plight of Adler and his family,” the complaint goes on, “and that, absent Nazi persecution, Adler would never have sold the painting when he did at such a price.”

Citing its own provenance research, the Guggenheim said in a statement that the plaintiff’s case is “without merit.”

Woman Ironing entered the museum’s collection in 1978, following an extended loan and promised gift from Justin Thannhauser in 1965. But before the acquisition was final, Guggenheim administrators looked into the painting’s past and contacted Karl Adler’s son, Eric Adler, as part of the process. 

The younger Adler “did not raise any concerns about the painting or its sale,” according to the institution. The museum also pointed out that the Thannhausers, too, were Jewish and subject to Nazi persecution.  

“The extensive research conducted by the Guggenheim since first being contacted by an attorney representing these claimants demonstrates that the Guggenheim is the rightful owner of the painting,” the museum’s statement went on. “There is no evidence that Karl Adler or his three children, now deceased, ever viewed the sale as unfair or considered Thannhauser a bad‐faith actor, either at the time of the transaction or at any time since.”

A spokesperson for the Guggenheim further explained that the painting is currently on view at the museum, as it has been almost continuously since being acquired 45 years ago. The artwork is not accompanied by signage stating that it “changed hands due to theft, seizure, confiscation, forced sale, or other involuntary means” during the Nazi era, as required by a recently passed New York law.

A lawyer representing Adler and Jacobi’s heir and the other plaintiffs did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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A Prized Van Gogh Was Sold Under Nazi Threat, Say the Heirs of a Jewish Banker Who Are Suing to Reclaim the Painting From a Museum

The heirs of a German Jewish businessman are suing a Japanese company over its prized Van Gogh painting, which they say was sold under threat of Nazi punishment nearly 90 years ago.

Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (1888) once belonged to the Berlin-based banker Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, who hastily sold off his art collection in around 1934 in an effort to protect his other assets from the Nazis.  

After exchanging hands multiple times, the piece was purchased by the Yasuda Fire & Marine Insurance Company, in 1987, at Christie’s London for a then-record price of £25 million (roughly $40 million at the time). In 2002, Yasuda was incorporated into another company, Sompo Holdings, which owns Van Gogh’s canvas today.

But even though Yasuda acquired the painting legally, three of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s descendants—Julius H. Schoeps, Britt-Marie Enhoerning, and Florence Von Kesselstatt, who are all plaintiffs in the case—now argue that the company ignored the artwork’s historical context in purchasing it.

In their complaint, filed on December 13, 2022 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, the heirs allege that Yasuda “recklessly—if not purposefully—ignored the provenance of Sunflowers that Christie’s published, which related that the famous Jewish Berlin banker and prominent Nazi victim Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy sold the painting in Berlin in 1934—at a time when notorious Nazi policies were targeting and dispossessing elite Jewish bankers and businessmen like Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and wreaking havoc upon Germany’s Jewish population.”

Appended to the complaint is a 2001 email sent from the Yasuda Museum of Art to the Van Gogh Museum as the two institutions were discussing a possible loan of Sunflowers for an upcoming exhibition. 

“We are deeply concerned about our [Van] Gogh and Gauguin provenance,” an administrator from the Japanese company’s museum wrote in the message. “We think our two works have nothing to do with Nazi-looted art, but we are not 100% sure.” 

The entrance to the Sompo Museum of Art in Tokyo. Courtesy of the Sompo Museum of Art.

The heirs are seeking to have the painting transferred to their possession, or if that’s not an option, they want $750 million in damages—an amount they say is equal to the artwork’s present-day market value.

Representatives from Sompo Holdings did not immediately respond to Midnight Publishing Group News’s request for comment, but a spokesperson for the company previously told Courthouse News that “Sompo categorically rejects any allegation of wrongdoing and intends to vigorously defend its ownership rights in Sunflowers.

“It is a matter of public record that Yasuda Fire & Marine Insurance Company purchased the Vincent van Gogh Sunflowers work at public auction from Christie’s in London in 1987,” the company employee added, noting that, for the past 35 years, the painting has been on display at the Sompo Museum of Fine Art in Tokyo.

According to Van Gogh specialist Martin Bailey, who publishes a weekly blog on the painter for the Art Newspaper, the case will likely come down to whether or not the court determines that Sunflowers was subject to a “forced sale” at a below-market price because of Nazi persecution.

The complaint explains that “purposeful and unrelenting Nazi policies to exclude Jews from the economy of Germany—and especially to eradicate Jewish banks—crippled Mendelssohn-Bartholdy financially and forced him in or around 1934 to consign Sunflowers to Parisian art dealer Paul Rosenberg.” 

The filing refers to the sale as a “paradigmatic forced transfer,” although there is no known record of how much Rosenberg paid in the exchange, which may make it difficult to prove that Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was pressured to offload the painting at a low price. The heirs’ lawyers did not respond to an email from Midnight Publishing Group.

Sompo is expected to contest the complaint in court. Meanwhile, Sunflowers remains on display at the company’s Tokyo museum.


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