Artwork by Norman Rockwell allegedly “hidden” in the White House for decades, the lawsuit says
- March 17, 2023
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One of Norman Rockwell’s most famous paintings depicts a happy family gathering for Thanksgiving dinner. Now a family feud has sparked a legal scuffle after one of its members discovered original drawings by the artist hanging in the White House on a 2017 TV show — artworks he believed they owned.
The saga of the controversial artwork begins in 1943 when Rockwell created a series of sketches entitled “So You Want to See the President” that were published in the Saturday Evening Post, where he worked as an illustrator for 47 years. That same year, according to legal documents, Rockwell gifted the illustrations to Stephen T. Early Sr., President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s press secretary.
But what happened next – and who owns the art – has become a point of contention, with Early’s descendants fighting over the four artworks, 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 1943 illustrations entitled “So You Want to See the President.” Now a court case alleges that a descendant of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s press secretary created the illustrations hidden in the White House to “wash” the art and gain sole ownership. Legal filings
When Thomas A. Early, one of Stephen Early’s three children, watched a television interview with former President Donald Trump in 2017, he spotted the Rockwells in a hall of the West Wing of the White House, according to a lawsuit filed Monday with the U.S. District Court was filed for the Eastern District of Virginia.
According to the lawsuit, while watching the television show, Thomas A. Early “first learned that the Rockwells were in the White House.” Died early in 2020.
While it’s unclear how the family dispute will be settled, one thing is certain: the Rockwells are likely worth a tidy sum. One of Rockwell’s paintings sold for $46 million a decade ago – although the controversial pieces are unlikely to reach anything close, given that they are sketches and drawings.
The artwork was to be kept at the home of Thomas A. Early’s sister, Helen Early Elam, where the family had agreed that it should be kept, the lawsuit alleges.
Instead, Helen Early Elam’s son, William Elam, is said to have “brought the Rockwells to the White House to conceal his removal of the artwork … and to have the Rockwells go into hiding for a considerable period of time to ‘wash’ or ‘wash’ ownership of it ‘ artwork in an effort to gain sole ownership,” the lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit alleges that Elam took the artworks to the White House in 1978 – during the Carter administration – “where they were loaned, with the lender listed as ‘Anonymous Lender.'”
After watching a television show in 2017, Thomas A. Early “promptly notified” the White House Trustee that he owned a one-third interest in the Rockwells and intended to pass his interest on to his children upon his death, the report said Legal action .
The lawsuit alleges no wrongdoing by the White House or any officials. The White House declined to comment on the “private dispute.” In 2022, the Rockwell artwork was removed and replaced with a portrait of President Joe Biden, according to Politico.
In a separate lawsuit, William Elam alleges that he is in fact the sole owner of the artwork.
According to Elam’s lawsuit, Stephen Early, FDR’s press secretary, gave the illustrations to his daughter Helen in 1949 when she was graduating from Pratt Institute in New York. She then gave the artwork to her son William, the claim said.
Elam’s lawsuit also alleges that his uncle Thomas A. Early’s estate, who spotted the artwork on television in 2017, failed to include the illustrations in its list of assets after his uncle’s death in 2020.
The lawsuit, which alleges Elam hid the art in the White House, is seeking $350,000 in damages and a judgment that the property be shared by descendants of the family, while Elam’s lawsuit is asking a court to rule that the work of art belongs to him alone.