Sunday, June 10, 2007

Raiders of the Lost Art

A few months ago I posted about a Norman Rockwell painting that turned up in Stephen Spielberg's collection 30 years after it was stolen from a St. Louis gallery. Now comes news that not one, but two lawsuits have followed: (1) Jack Solomon, the owner of the gallery from which the painting was stolen in 1973, has sued both Spielberg and the FBI in federal court in Nevada, and (2) Judy Goffman Cutler, a Rhode Island dealer who sold the painting to Spielberg in 1989, has filed a separate federal suit in New York against Solomon and the Art Loss Register Inc., which has apparently been helping him in his efforts to recover the painting. The Wall Street Journal had the story a few weeks ago, and last week the St. Louis Riverfront Times had much more. The Riverfront Times story is long and wild (the subhead is: "Steven Spielberg's stolen painting, a St. Louis art thief, and a plot to kill Martin Luther King. It could make a helluva movie"), but it seems to me that very little of it sheds much light on the legal claims at issue. Some very general thoughts on those claims, recognizing that there may well be much more to the story than we have so far been told:

1. The basic rule at the heart of the case -- that "you can't get good title from a thief" -- seems to favor Solomon, from whom the work was stolen in 1973. But nothing is ever that simple, and there were at least two complicating factors that jumped out at me from the article.

2. The first was Goffman Cutler's claim that Solomon's insurer paid him $25,000 for the artwork following the theft. If this is true (the Riverfront Times story also reports it as a fact), it may well be that Solomon gave up the right to make a claim (presumably the insurance company would have acquired the right when it paid Solomon's insurance claim).

3. The other issue is timing: It's not clear which state's law will apply here, but many jurisdictions have some variant of the rule that the statute of limitations starts to run when a claimant reasonably should have discovered the identity of the "wrongful" possessor of the work. The Riverfront Times talks to Mary Ellen Shortland, who was the assistant director of the gallery at the time of the theft. Sixteen years later, "she was flipping through the July/August 1989 edition of the trade magazine Art & Auction when she came across an advertisement announcing the sale of [the painting]." She says she tried to call Solomon "but was unable to get through." Her inquiries "were later chronicled by former Riverfront Times reporter Wm. Stage in the October 11, 1989, issue of [the] paper. Stage wrote that he also attempted to get in touch with Solomon to no avail." Does all of that add up to Solomon reasonably should have discovered the painting had been located in 1989?

I guess we'll soon find out.