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Family Feud Over Rockwell Drawings

March 23, 2023
An illustration showing a group of people waiting on red couches and chairs, including multiple men in suits, a British officer in a kilt, and a red-headed woman in a yellow dress and a sash reading "Miss America". The illustration is Norman Rockwell's depiction of people waiting for an meeting with president Franklin D. Roosevelt.

So You Want To See The President! by Norman Rockwell (courtesy of the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia)

A family is currently dividing itself into factions because of the disputed ownership of some drawings. But they’re not just any drawings…

So You Want To See the President! is a series of illustrations created by the American artist Norman Rockwell in 1943. The drawings show various figures sitting around waiting for an audience with the president, which in this case was Franklin D. Roosevelt. Later published in the Saturday Evening Post, the illustrations depict journalists, both British and American military officers, members of Congress like Texas senator Thomas Terry Connally, and even that year’s Miss America. Rockwell gifted the original illustrations to FDR’s press secretary Stephen Early, who is also featured in the works. In a letter thanking Rockwell, Early wrote, “I am as proud of these original sketches of yours as Churchill was of the R.A.F.” Now, some 80 years later, a legal battle has begun over which of the press secretary’s descendants have an ownership interest in the works.

In 2017, in a scene that seems like it was written for a movie, the press secretary’s son Thomas Early was watching a televised interview with President Donald Trump filmed in the White House when he saw something very familiar in the background: the original Rockwell illustrations which they thought were in storage. Mr. Early reached out to the White House curator, William Allman, and asked how the drawings wound up hanging in the White House. According to the White House, the illustrations are the property of William Elam, Thomas Early’s nephew, the son of his sister Helen.

William Elam claims that his grandfather had gifted the Rockwell drawings to his daughter, William’s mother Helen, shortly before his death in 1951. In 1978, Helen decided to loan the illustrations to the White House. When Helen later transferred ownership of the illustrations to her son William, he agreed to let the White House hang onto them for a little longer. However, the drawings’ ownership is not as clear-cut as Mr. Elam says. Two of his cousins and his aunt are all parties to a lawsuit filed last month in Virginia. The suit alleges that, by loaning the illustrations to the White House art collection, Helen Early Elam went back on a promise to keep the Rockwells in storage as part of the family’s shared inheritance. It further alleges that William Elam loaned the drawings to the White House to keep them away from the rest of the family and claim sole ownership. So, Elam’s cousins are essentially arguing that the White House art collection was being used as a way to, in effect, launder a work of art. Court documents show that, even decades ago, ownership of the Rockwells was not exactly clear. Mr. Elam argues that one of his mother’s brothers, Stephen Jr., told Helen to sell the Rockwells to pay for medical and living expenses, indicating that the illustrations belonged solely to Helen. However, Mr. Elam’s cousins assert that Helen asked for permission from her brother to exhibit the drawings in San Francisco in 1980, which they argue proves that Helen recognized the Rockwells as being owned by the family collectively.

Last summer, when the family feud began to boil over, the White House decided to return the Rockwells to Mr. Elam pending the dispute’s resolution. The collective value of the illustrations is said to be in the area of $8 million. Pretrial proceedings are set to commence on April 5th.