By: Peter Shinkle, of the Post-Dispatch
(reprinted from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), September 2, 2005)
Two men have pleaded guilty in St. Louis of stealing paintings and other works of art estimated to be worth $4 million. They included works by masters such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Salvador Dali.
The two men are former employees of an art shipping company in Bridgeton. They looted more than 130 pieces of art in 2002 from the company’s offices, authorities said Thursday. Biron A. Valier, 36, of Ramblewood Lane in Creve Coeur, pleaded guilty Thursday in federal court to one count of conspiracy to transport stolen goods in interstate commerce. Donald R. Rasch, 44, of the 1400 block of Quendo Avenue in University City, pleaded guilty to the same charge Aug. 25.
In a somewhat odd twist, the art, which belonged to a Florida couple, had been sitting in storage at the office of Fine Arts Express in Bridgeton since about 1994 until the time the two men stole it, according to U.S. Attorney Catherine Hanaway.
The art’s owners, Dr. David Harter and his wife, Dianne Harter, had moved from Nebraska to Arizona, then again to Florida, and the art was the couple’s “nest egg,” Hanaway said.
There are other unanswered questions about the affair. Authorities declined to discuss the art collectors and galleries that acquired the art and later played a role in disclosing the theft, although some of them are identified in public records.
What’s more, some 45 pieces of stolen art, with a value of several hundred thousand dollars, have not been recovered, said FBI agent Frank Brostrom.
Even so, authorities touted the investigation as a success, noting that a special FBI unit created last year, the FBI rapid deployment Art Crime Team, had played a role in recovering the stolen works.
Hanaway said the FBI and the Bridgeton Police Department cooperated in the investigation, and they “pursued this case all the way to Japan to recover some of this art.”
One painting that was recovered, a work by Mark Rothko valued at more than $1 million, was located in Japan, Hanaway said. Others were recovered in New York and San Francisco. Another work, by Willem de Kooning, was valued at more than $800,000, she said.
The theft was discovered after a man bought eight of the pieces from Rasch, said Bridgeton police Detective Lance Harris. The buyer then tried to verify the ownership of the art, and located the real owners, the Harters, Harris said.
The Harters hired a private detective, who contacted authorities, Harris said. Rasch and Valier ultimately cooperated in the recovery of the art.
A Ladue real estate investor, Stuart Slavin, said he was the collector who bought the paintings from Rasch and discovered they belonged to the Harters. Slavin said Rasch, whom he met through a former employee of Slavin’s business, initially told him he had inherited the paintings from his grandfather.
Slavin said he checked a registry to find out whether the art was stolen or lost, and found no record. But he said he later became suspicious and made more checks when he bought the last of the eight paintings he acquired from Rasch. Slavin said he contacted a New York art gallery owner, who said the painting belonged to David Harter.
Slavin said that when he confronted Rasch with the new information, Rasch changed his story, saying he had recovered the paintings from a trash bin at Fine Arts Express, where he formerly worked. Rasch said the owners of Fine Art Express had told him to throw away property belonging to people who were behind in their storage bill payments.
Slavin said he then had his attorney contact Harter, and Harter claimed he suspected his wife had failed to make payments for the storage locker.
The Harters could not be reached for comment.
Slavin said that the eight paintings, which he and a friend bought from Rasch for about $80,000, are likely worth far more. He said one art specialist from the Christie’s auction house estimated one of the paintings — a de Kooning on display in the FBI offices Thursday — is worth about $300,000. He dismissed the assertion it was worth as much as $800,000.
Slavin has filed a suit claiming that he is the rightful owner of the paintings. But now that Rasch and Valier have pleaded guilty of stealing the paintings, he will likely be unable to prove he is their rightful owner, Slavin said glumly.
“If they’re stolen, it may be difficult to get them,” he said.
Slavin said he has been collecting art for 35 years. “I’ve never run into anything like this before. I’m very careful about what I buy, but after 35 years it caught up with me.”
Rasch, an artist, has cooperated with authorities to help to recover the art, his attorney, John Rogers, said. Valier and his attorney could not be reached for comment. Slavin is not the only one to suffer from dealing with Valier and Rasch. The Kodner Gallery of Ladue has sued Valier and his wife, Julie Valier, claiming it bought eight paintings — including one by Rothko — for a total of $366,682.50 in 2003. The suit, filed in St. Louis County Circuit Court, says Kodner then sold the art to customers, including other art dealers.
Kodner’s attorney, Albert Watkins, said Valier claimed that the paintings came to him through his family.
Later, Kodner was contacted by law enforcement officers who informed the gallery that the art was stolen. The suit claims the Valiers committed fraud by claiming the pieces belonged to them. It also seeks return of the money paid for the paintings as well as $1.5 million in damages for costs Kodner incurred, such as paying settlements to art dealers.
“You’ve got to stand behind your artwork, and Kodner always has, always will,” Watkins said.
As for the theft, he said, “The entire art world despises this type of thing happening.”