A federal judge has ruled on a dispute between relatives of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s press secretary over ownership of four Norman Rockwell drawings that hung for decades in the White House.
The drawings – titled “So You Want to See the President!” — show a series of personalities, including a Scottish military officer, a beauty pageant winner and a US senator, all waiting at the White House for an audience with Roosevelt. Rockwell delivered the original drawings, published in the Saturday Evening Post, to the president’s press secretary, Stephen T. early. One drawing depicts Early with a pipe clenched between his teeth, facing a group of journalists.
The four illustration panels, created in 1943, were annotated when they appeared in The Post as part of a humorous look at the wide variety of people who sought to gather in the Oval Office during wartime.
The lawsuit focused on the family members who inherited Early’s drawings, with some relatives saying they were unaware until recently that the works had been on loan to the White House since 1978.
Relatives of Thomas A. Early, the former press secretary’s son, said in court papers that he only learned the drawings had left the family property when, in 2017, he saw President Donald J. Trump being interviewed on television. There in the background were the Rockwells.
Mr. Early wrote to the White House saying he suspected the works had been loaned without his permission by his nephew, William Nile Elam III.
Years of lawsuits and bitter disputes follow uppitting cousin against cousin, each party accusing the other of bad faith and scheming.
Several members of the Early family claimed they co-owned the drawings, which the White House curator said in 2017 had been valued at around $8 million in an “unofficial valuation” by people from a large auction house.
But Mr. Elam countered that he was the sole owner of the drawings, adding that his grandfather, the press secretary, had given the works to his daughter Helen Early Elam, Mr. Elam’s mother.
His ownership claim was upheld by Judge Michael S. Nachmanoff of the federal district court in Alexandria, Virginia, who issued a written opinion Tuesday that embraced the aesthetic context of the feud. In making his ruling, the judge cited an excerpt from the short story “Babylon Revisited,” published in 1931 by the Saturday Evening Post, a publication in which Rockwell’s images appeared regularly.
The judge wrote: “F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “Family feuds are bitter things. They don’t follow any rules. He added that the property rules in this case, however, “lead to a clear result.”
Judge Nachmanoff ruled in favor of Mr. Elam based, in part, on evidence that he said demonstrated that the drawings were in the physical possession of Mr. Elam or his mother for a long period of time, 18 years, before to disappear. to the White House.
Robert Goldman, the lawyer for members of the Early family who had opposed Mr. Elam in court, said by email that he was consulting with his clients about appealing the judge’s order declaring Mr. Elam l sole owner of the illustrations.
In a court filing, Mr. Elam traced the Rockwells’ ownership that began, he said, with a donation in 1949. That year, Mr. Elam said, Mr. Early gave the works to his daughter Helen, who had just graduated from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where she studied advertising design. Mr. Early died two years later.
Early family members provided a completely different account of what happened to the Rockwells. They argued the illustrations were a family heirloom, long in the possession of Mr Early’s wife and held jointly by family members after her death in 1978. They said Helen had asked her brother Thomas permission to exhibit the Rockwells in San Francisco in 1980, the evidence they suggested showed she knew she was not the sole owner.
The parties agreed that after Ms. Early’s death, her grandson, Mr. Elam, brought the drawings to the White House. Early family members said the works were loaned from the lender listed as anonymous, which they said was part of a plan by Mr. Elam to make it easier for him to become sole owner of them.
Two of Mr. Elam’s lawyers, David G. Fiske and Thomas C. Junker, said they were not aware of any evidence that their client had asked the White House to conceal the identity of the lender. They added that the White House loan followed an attempted break-in at the Virginia home of Mr. Elam’s grandmother, Helen Wrenn Early. One of Mr. Elam’s lawyers also said that members of the Early family knew the paintings were on display at the White House, contrary to what Thomas A. Early would have thought.
Judge Nachmanoff wrote that either Mr. Elam or his mother were in physical possession of the illustrations from 1960 to 1978, meaning that Mr. Elam was “entitled to the benefit of the common law presumption of ownership based on such possession.” “.
Although members of the Early family attempted to rebut this presumption by advancing a “theft theory” on the part of Mr. Elam, the judge added in his opinion that they had not provided “the type or amount of evidence to establish the theft.
Before the drawings were returned to Mr. Elam last year, they had hung in the White House under eight presidential administrations, starting with that of Jimmy Carter.
Mr. Fiske, the lawyer, said Mr. Elam was happy to have them back.
“They’ve been a part of his life for a long time,” Mr. Fiske said, adding of Mr. Elam: “He feels vindicated.”