A set of Norman Rockwell sketches are at the center of a growing family dispute according to a recent lawsuit. The works, titled “So You Want to See the President,” originally appeared in the Saturday Evening Post and were gifted by the artist to Stephen T. Early Sr., President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s press secretary. Rockwell’s art, which has mass appeal for its depiction of American culture, has previously sold for millions at auction, so it’s no surprise Early’s heirs are set to battle over ownership right of the sketches.
The trouble began when one of Early’s sons, Thomas A. Early, noticed the Rockwells hanging at the White House while watching a 2017 interview of former President Trump. Per Thomas’ lawsuit, the artwork was passed down in equal shares to each of Stephen’s three children and was supposed to be stored at Thomas’ sister’s house. Instead, according to court papers, William Elam, son of Thomas’ sister, Helen Early Elam, lent the Rockwells to the White House “to conceal his removal of the artwork ... and to hide the Rockwells for a significant time period to ‘launder’ or ‘wash’ the ownership of artwork, in the effort to obtain sole ownership.” In addition to $350,000 in damages, Thomas is asking for a judgment that the ownership is in fact shared equally by Stephen’s descendants.
The White House took the artwork down in 2022, after being put on notice of the ownership dispute.
In a separate lawsuit, William claims that his mother, Helen, was the sole inheritor of the artwork and that Stephen didn’t leave the artwork in equal shares to his children. As proof of her sole ownership, he provided a copy of a program for a 1980 exhibition in San Francisco of materials related to the presidency that lists the Rockwells and states that they were lent to the White House by Helen. He also provided a copy of a 1980 letter from a White House curator, thanking her for loaning the Rockwells for the San Francisco show.
In their counterclaim, the Early family alleges that William took the works out of his grandmother’s home and brought them to the White House, where they were placed on loan with the lender listed as anonymous in an attempt to “launder” the ownership and promote sole ownership by William.
Who Has Legal Title?
“This case is a classic example of why you need to be more thoughtful with your planning,” said Michael Duffy, head of art planning at Merrill Lynch, based in Atlanta. According to Duffy, leaving tangible personal property that can’t be divided often becomes problematic, especially as it gets passed down from generation to generation and perhaps one of the tenants in common wants to sell while the others don’t. For that reason, Duffy recommends that clients pass art down through a trust or place it in a limited liability company and transfer the interest.
A court will need to refer to Stephen’s will to determine whether the art was in fact passed down to the siblings equally, as the heirs are disputing who has ownership. If the will didn’t specify, it defaults to one-third share to each sibling intestate. If that’s the case, as tenants in common, one shouldn’t have been able to loan the art without permission from the others.
“Giving a piece of art to each kid could have solved the problem,” opines Duffy. In this case, once the court returns the art to the family, the beneficiaries have to figure out on their own whether to sell the pieces so as to prevent further fighting. Selling the art might not be the worst idea, as the works have appreciated in value due to the step-up in tax basis. Furthermore, Duffy added, “regardless of how long the estate held the art, it gets long term capital gains treatment, so the worst capital gains tax rate is 28% opposed to a 37% rate.”