Picture perfect

Picture perfect? Not this scheme
By Peter Shinkle
Saturday, Nov. 19 2005 

The hunt for $4 million worth of missing art began a year ago in a Dumpster in Clayton.

It ended this month with federal prison terms for the two men who took it.

And the trail between offers intrigue worthy of a movie.

The star might be James Anterio, a beefy private eye from Miami, a former cop hired by a rich couple to track down a disconcerting letter they got in October 2004.

It came from Gregory White, a lawyer in Clayton, offering to return some of the artwork that David and Diane Harter thought had been in storage in St. Louis. In the letter, White said his undisclosed client claimed ownership but offered to pay the Harters $30,000 for a clear title and the name of the man who sold it to him. It implied, at least, that the name might lead the Harters to more of what had been theirs.

The couple did not send a reply. Instead, quietly, they sent Anterio.

Presuming White would not reveal his client's name, Anterio let the lawyer's trash do the talking. "Dumpster diving, we call it," Anterio said last week in describing how he deduced the name of real estate investor Stuart Slavin from discarded documents he found.

He knew he had deduced correctly when he and his partner aimed the long lens of an infra-red camera through a window of Slavin's tony home on Fordyce Lane in Ladue one night and spied one of the Harters' missing paintings hanging behind one of their missing sculptures. The painting, by American modern master Willem DeKooning, is valued at more than $350,000.

A week later, Anterio put a second key piece into place after he walked into the Kodner Gallery in Ladue. The detective described the missing art to one of the owners, Jonathan Kodner, and asked whether he had seen any of it, including a painting by Mark Rothko. Kodner began breathing hard, the detective said, and said he had obtained the Rothko and other pieces from a man named Biron A. 

"I knew it. I shouldn't have trusted Biron Valier," Anterio recalled Kodner as saying.

Anterio's findings helped Bridgeton police obtain search warrants for
Slavin's home and the Kodner Gallery.

Both the gallery and Slavin have insisted they did nothing wrong in buying the art. They said the sellers in separate deals, Valier and Donald R. Rasch respectively, each claimed to have inherited the pieces.

Common ground

Valier and Rasch both claimed to be art lovers, yet they were something of an odd pair. Rasch, who grew up in East St. Louis, was an artist who claimed he  was selling the paintings to pay for renovations of a home, Slavin has said. Valier came from a family well-known among the city's elite. He attended St. Louis Country Day School, a private preparatory school in Ladue, and the Art Institute of San Francisco.

They found common ground where they worked, at Fine Arts Express, an art transfer and storage company. When it moved in June 2002 from Grandel Square in St. Louis to a warehouse at 4738 Earth City Expressway in Bridgeton, they stole the Harters' art, splitting it between them. Eventually, they sold some of

According to Slavin, Rasch said he got it from his grandfather, who had died. Slavin says that he checked with the Art Loss Register Inc., and that none of the pieces had been reported stolen.

When he bought the eighth piece, Slavin said, he found an art gallery label. He says the gallery had told him that a man named David Harter had purchased
the painting.

Slavin says he tracked the Harters to Florida, and had White, his lawyer, inquire. The Harters responded with a list of their stored works. Thus,
Slavin contends, it was he who uncovered the theft.

Yet the communications with the Harters omitted at least two things:
Slavin's name and Rasch's name.

White sent a letter Oct. 14, 2004, to the Harters' lawyer, confirming that his unidentified client had paid an unidentified seller $150,000 for eight pieces on the Harters' list.

White wrote that his client was willing to pay $30,000 to the Harters for "clear" title to all eight. If the Harters took the deal, White indicated,
his client would give them the name of his seller. Sweetening the offer, White noted that the seller had indicated he possessed 11 other works that showed up on the Harters' list.

The Harters didn't bite. They say the eight pieces alone were worth more than $500,000.

That led them to hire Anterio.

Pictures on a wall

The detective and his partner started with their main lead, White's office, which happened to be in a building owned by and named for Slavin. Key pieces of White's trash contained the name as well.

About 2:30 a.m., on Oct. 20, 2004, Anterio took advantage of uncovered
windows to photograph three pieces of the art on a wall in Slavin's home: the untitled work by DeKooning, a drawing by Richard Diebenkorn and a sculpture by Alexander Archipenko.

Slavin said he was shocked to learn later of the photos. "I'm taken aback,"
he said.

Asked why he did not reveal himself to the Harters, Slavin said, "There was no reason to advertise who I was at that time." He added: "We wanted to handle the situation and resolve it."

David Kodner and Valier had met at Country Day School, and met again by chance at a Cardinals baseball game in June 2002. Kodner says Valier told him that he might inherit some art and need help selling it.

The next month, Valier took several pieces to the gallery, including an
untitled 1968 painting by Rothko, the Russian-born American artist
known for loose-edged, rectangular fields of color set side by side. Kodner says he checked the Art Loss Register and found no problem. Ultimately, Kodner said, he appraised about 50 pieces for Valier but bought
just seven, for $366,682.50.

Should Kodner have done more? Ronald Greenberg, an owner of Greenberg Van Doren Gallery in St. Louis, suggests not. "I would have done the same thing that they did," he said. "I like the fact that they at least did their homework by calling the loss registry, because that's the first thing we would have
done, too."

Kodner went on to sell the Rothko to the Richard Gray Gallery in Chicago.

Its director, Paul Gray, said he paid "a substantial amount of money in the six figures" and recognized the piece as one he had sold to David Harter roughly a decade earlier. But Gray said it was not on the Art Loss Register and he knew Kodner to be reputable. He presumed Harter had sold it.

Eventually, after displaying the painting at an international art show in
Miami, Gray sold it to a Japanese collector in January 2004 for $1 million, according to the U.S. attorney's office here. Gray declined to identify the purchaser, though sources said on condition of anonymity that it was
businessman Takashi Endo, whom the U.S. Department of State thanked last month for contributing $1 million to Hurricane Katrina relief.

Feeling betrayed

Jonathan Kodner said the news from Anterio, the private detective, almost brought him to tears, and left him feeling betrayed by Valier.

"For this guy to come into this gallery and use his name the way he did and put us in a very unfortunate situation was beyond comprehension," Kodner said. "This wasn't some schlub off the street. . . . This guy was from a respected family."

Soon, the FBI was helping track down the paintings, which had spread around the country and overseas. Ultimately, Endo returned the Rothko, and Kodner and Gray signed a confidential settlement of the matter. Richard Gray said that the Kodner Gallery had returned his money and that Kodner had handled the matter professionally.

Finally exposed, Valier and Rasch pleaded guilty recently to stealing more than 130 art works belonging to the Harters.

Rasch, 44, of University City, was sentenced Nov. 8 to two years in prison. Valier, 38, of Creve Coeur, got credit from prosecutors for cooperating with the FBI and was sentenced Tuesday to 90 days in prison.

Yet the case is hardly resolved. Forty-five pieces of the Harters' art
collection, including paintings by Picasso and Kandinsky, remain missing.

Legal wrangling continues, too. Kodner Gallery has sued Valier, seeking recovery of more than $1 million in damages. Valier's attorney, William Margulis, responded by claiming that when the Kodner Gallery bought the works, it failed to determine whether the title to the artwork was clear. Thus, Margulis claims, Kodner was "a participant in an illegal or immoral or fraudulent act or transaction."

Kodner's attorney, Albert Watkins, has replied with a sharp rebuke, calling it "a pathetic, comical and misplaced assertion."

Slavin is pursuing his own suit against the Harters, despite the fact that federal prosecutors have formally identified them as victims of a theft. Slavin claims he has legal title to the art, asserting that the couple failed to make storage payments to Fine Arts Express. Attorneys for the couple denied that,

and said Slavin cannot gain title through a theft.

Slavin remains defiant. "I have yet to see one bill of sale, or one piece of documented information, that would tell me that Harter has title to those paintings," he said. "We still feel we have a case, so it's up in the air. We don't know who in the hell owns them."