The FBI recently disclosed that Steven Spielberg had a stolen Norman Rockwell painting hanging on his wall, in plain sight. Apparently Spielberg bought Rockwell’s "Russian Schoolroom" in 1989 from an art dealer he assumed to be legitimate.
How was he to know it had been stolen?
The word on the street is caveat emptor – “beware, buyer”. These days missing and stolen art is tracked by a variety of on-line services, including the Missing Art Registry. In fact, Spielberg realized he was holding ill-gotten gains when an employee checked the FBI Web site last month, and discovered that the painting had been listed as stolen from a gallery in 1973.Though Spielberg won’t be charged with wrongdoing– it was determined he knew nothing of the theft when he bought the piece – he has to surrender the painting to its original owners. He is one of the many unfortunate collectors who have been burned intransactions that appeared to be legitimate.
Authorities say the higher online visibility of missing and stolen art is not only resulting in artwork being turned in, but also has inspired more people to come forward to claim title to the works. This is especially true in the case of artwork lost during World War II under the Nazis. For example, last year, the FBI recovered three works by 19th century painter Heinrich Burkel that disappeared from a German air raid shelter during the closing days of World War II. The paintings' rightful owner contacted authorities after seeing the works offered for sale on the Web by a dealer from Pennsylvania. It turned out that a New Jersey man had bought them in the 1960s. They were kept in the family with no idea that they were stolen until they were put up to auction. They were subsequently returned to the museum in Germany, from whence they came.
For more on Norman Rockwell and his art, visit his museum website.