Norman Rockwell Donee Descendant Claims Art Treasure Hidden In Plain Sight – The White House!

Norman Rockwell Donee Descendant Claims Art Treasure Hidden In Plain Sight – The White House!

The ownership of a series of sketches (worth many millions of dollars) entitled “So you want to see the President” by famed American artist Norman Rockwell, that was originally published in the Saturday Evening Post, has resulted in an estate battle approximately 75-80 years after a gift of the artwork.

Rockwell gave the sketches to Stephen D. Early (who died in 1951), the press secretary of Franklin D. Roosevelt. This was prior to the federal law which limits gifts to federal employees. While watching a televised White House press conference of former President Trump in 2017, Thomas, one of Stephen Early’s two sons, noticed the sketches in the background on a wall in the West Wing. Thomas thought he and his 2 siblings (Stephen had 3 children born of the same marriage) equally owned the Rockwell artwork given to Stephen. He thought his mom, who died in 1978, was the beneficiary of the artwork after Stephen (her husband) passed. Thomas also thought that his sister Helen (who has since passed) was keeping the artwork at her home.

Upon inquiry of the White House, Thomas was advised it was a loan from an anonymous donor in 1978 during the Carter administration (so it had been kept at the White House for around 40 years before Thomas noticed). Thomas concluded that Helen’s son, William, had done this on purpose as a ploy to “launder” or “wash” the ownership of the artwork to obtain sole ownership since it was held at the White House for a long time. There is an old saying “If you want to hide a treasure, put it in plain sight. Then no one will see it”. As a result, Thomas filed a lawsuit indicating all three children of Stephen were equal owners after their mom died. Helen’s grandson (hereinafter “Jr.”) countersued saying Helen received the artwork from Stephen as a college graduation gift in the 1940s. He also alleged Helen gave the artwork to her son, William, prior to her death. William has since passed and Jr. alleges the artwork has thus passed to him. Jr. has argued that if Thomas thought the Rockwell art belonged to all 3 children, then why was it not listed as part of his inventory of his estate after Thomas’ will was probated (Thomas died after the lawsuit was filed but the suit continued by the grandchildren of Stephen other than Jr.). Jr. said his grandmother loaned the artwork to the White House since it was safer than her home which had been burglarized. Last year the White House returned the artwork to Jr. pending the lawsuit determination.

So, what should Stephen have done so that his family would not be involved in a lawsuit against each other? If it were a gift to Helen, then Stephen could have filed a gift tax return reporting the gift to the IRS since you would think Rockwell artwork was worth more than the annual exclusion at that time. Under current law (2023), donors who make a gift of more than $17,000 a year per individual are supposed to file a gift tax return on Form 709. If it was not a gift, Stephen could have said which art went to which child. Also, if Stephen thought there could be a family feud over the artwork, he could have mentioned it in his estate planning documents as whether it had already been gifted or he could have had the art held in an LLC or trust. Some list how tangible personal property is distributed in their will or trust.

Some keep a memorandum on how personal property is to be distributed. Although a memorandum is not legally binding if it were in Texas (this varies by state), the wishes of Stephen could at least be known. Many use a memorandum in Texas so they don’t have legal fees every time they change their will or trust. Of course, if Stephen still owned the artwork at the time of his death, he could have made a specific bequest if he didn’t want it shared. When there is no memorandum or specific bequest, some use a lottery or rotation system to divide personal property.

Other options include (1) using colored stickers to indicate what each beneficiary wants, (2) getting appraisals (which may be more applicable to artwork or jewelry since some art or jewelry would have a higher value and then the one who gets the more expensive piece either pays the difference or gets less of the estate), (3) make copies (usually for photos or videos), (4) work with a manager who all beneficiaries trust, (5) create a Family Settlement Agreement, (6) use an online service such as FairSplit.com to divide the property, (7) use a mediator who helps family members focus on core issues instead of emotions, (8) auction items between family members or (9) leave a clause in the will “if my kids cannot agree on division of the tangible personal property then a particular person will have authority as to who gets what”.

If interested in learning more about this article or other estate planning, Medicaid and public benefits planning, probate, etc., attend one of our free upcoming Estate Planning Essentials workshops by clicking here or calling 214-720-0102. We make it simple to attend and it is without obligation.

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