Art theft still a mystery
By Peter Shinkle
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Originally published Jan. 3, 2006
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Private detective James Anterio is stumped.
Last year, Anterio used a high-tech camera to take photos of stolen art in a house in Ladue, cracking a $4 million art heist. But now, three months after two men pleaded guilty of stealing more than 130 pieces of art in that case, 45 works of art worth an estimated $1.2 million remain missing.
The FBI is on the trail of the stolen art. Anterio, a former Miami police officer, is hunting for the art on behalf of its owners, David and Diane Harter of Florida. So far, not a single piece has surfaced, but Anterio and the FBI remain hopeful. "There will be things turning up," Anterio said.
The list of missing pieces includes work by some of the best-known artists of the 20th century, including Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and Wassily Kandinsky. Another of the stolen pieces was a sculpture by Alexander Calder, whose art can be found in public spaces and museums around the world.
Have these pieces slipped into the shadows of the art underworld, where stolen pieces are sold from one shady dealer to the next? Were they somehow lost? Have the thieves hidden them in a secret treasure-trove? No one seems to know.
The thieves, Biron A. Valier and Donald R. Rasch, pleaded guilty of conspiring in June 2002 to steal all 133 objects in the Harters' collection from Fine Arts Express, a storage facility in Bridgeton where the two men worked.
Last month, U.S. District Judge Charles Shaw sentenced Rasch to two years in prison. The judge sentenced Valier, who got credit for cooperating with the FBI, to 90 days in prison. The judge ordered them jointly to pay $1.2 million to compensate the Harters for the art that remains missing.
At the center of the case lies a mystery: Both men pleaded guilty to taking all 133 works of art, and both have insisted they cooperated with authorities and returned all of the art they took. And yet, 45 of the pieces stolen remain missing.
William Margulis, Valier's attorney, offered a blunt explanation. "I think obviously one of them is lying, and I would submit it is not my client," he said.
Rasch, however, insisted that he has in fact returned every piece of art he took. "I gave back everything," he said.
Yet nothing in this case is simple. Rasch also denied knowing that in his guilty plea he admitted conspiring with Valier to steal all 133 pieces. "I wasn't told that," he said.
Rasch said he and Valier never saw 133 pieces at Fine Arts Express. "We did not see that amount of pieces there, and I have claimed that and said that the whole time," Rasch said.
Rasch said the additional pieces might have been stolen by others, or they might not have been in the facility in the first place.
Rasch's attorney, John Rogers, rebuffed the notion that Rasch did not understand he was pleading to a conspiracy to take all 133 pieces of art. "The plea agreement was extensive and is clear. Mr. Rasch and I discussed it thoroughly, and it's my understanding that he had a clear understanding of the contents of the agreement," Rogers said.
Frank Brostrom, an FBI agent who investigated the case, pointed out that Rasch has claimed that possessing the stolen works was worth the prison sentence he received. "Just having them is satisfaction enough for an art thief," Brostrom said.
As to the claims of the two thieves that they have cooperated fully, Brostrom said: "Only they can answer that -- whether it's truthful or not."
The suggestion that some of the art was never at Fine Arts Express to begin with prompts a firm denial from both an attorney for the Harters and from Kim Humphries, who was Valier's and Rasch's boss at Fine Arts Express.
In late 2001, Humphries said, the company was in financial difficulty, new investors had come into it, and to cut costs it moved its St. Louis office from Grandel Square to Earth City Expressway, he said. Yet the Harters' collection arrived safely at the new facility, and the pieces were wrapped individually in black plastic, Humphries said. "Our accounting methods were ironclad," he said.
But Fine Arts Express fired Humphries in December 2001, and made Valier the general manager. Fine Arts Express has gone out of business.
Rasch's cooperation has had its hitches. He initially told the FBI he turned over all the stolen art he had after the theft was discovered in October 2004, Brostrom said. But almost a year later, shortly before pleading guilty on Sept. 1, Rasch turned over two other objects -- one a sculpture by Mark Di Suvero -- with a total value of about $200,000, Brostrom said.
Rasch attributed the late delivery of the two pieces to an oversight by the FBI, Brostrom said. "I was just glad to have it back," the agent said.
Still figures of interest
The FBI's scrutiny of Rasch and Valier is not over, Brostrom said. "Just because they've pled and been sentenced, that doesn't mean we're going to forget it."
Anterio also said that Rasch and Valier remain figures of interest in his efforts to track down the missing art. The private detective said his company, James Allen Investigations, is looking for tips on the stolen art, and will take information from people wishing to guard their confidentiality. He urges people with information about the art to call him at 954-319-1257.
"There are a lot of people who don't ever want to go to the federal authorities," he said. "Sometimes they talk to people in private industry faster than they talk to an FBI agent."
Anterio was hired after the Harters received a letter from a Clayton lawyer saying an unidentified client had bought some of the works. Anterio came to Clayton and identified the buyer as a Ladue businessman, Stuart Slavin, and used an infrared camera to take pictures of the art in Slavin's house. Police then seized that art, as well as other pieces that Anterio found Valier had sold to Kodner Gallery in Ladue.
Both Slavin and Kodner have said they didn't know the works were stolen when they bought them. Kodner has sued Valier for $1.5 million over its dealings with the thief. Slavin, meanwhile, has sued the Harters, claiming he is the rightful owner of the art he acquired from Rasch.
The recovered pieces include an untitled painting by Willem De Kooning, which was hanging on Slavin's wall. A painting by Mark Rothko, which Valier stole and then sold to Kodner, was ultimately recovered from a Japanese businessman who had paid another gallery $1 million for it.
Some of the art from the Harter collection that remains missing is highly recognizable. Mari-Claudia Jimenez, an attorney for the Harters, said the missing pieces include:
A 1946 lithograph print of an ink drawing depicting a woman's head by Picasso titled "Francoise #46"
A 1972 collage of acrylic paint on canvas with a found object by Robert Motherwell, called "Scarlet With Gauloise #15."
Two wood block prints made by Kandinsky in 1911, "Blue Rider" and "Two Women in Moonscape."
An untitled drawing by David Smith from 1961.
A steel wire sculpture by Alexander Calder, "Fishbowl," from 1928.
The Harters have estimated the value of the art that remains missing at $1.2 million. The couple began collecting as a hobby 40 years ago, though their collection eventually became an investment for their retirement, said Jimenez, a New York attorney who specializes in art law. The theft left the couple "devastated," she said.
The theft has provoked the anger of Humphries, the former Fine Arts Express general manager. An artist himself, Humphries said that when Rasch and Valier committed the theft, they "violated a sacred trust" and got off far too easily for their crime.
"I'm appalled at the sentences they've gotten," he said. "These guys should be in jail until all that work is recovered."