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Family Feud Over Rockwells Resolved?

November 9, 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)

After almost eight months, a judge has decided in a family dispute over a group of Rockwell illustrations. Norman Rockwell created the So You Want to See the President! illustrations in 1943, showing various figures he observed in the White House waiting to meet President Franklin D. Roosevelt. These figures included military officers from both the US and Britain, journalists, members of Congress, and even the most recent Miss America. Rockwell originally gave the drawings to FDR’s press secretary, Stephen Early. Eighty years later, his descendants are involved in a family dispute over their ownership, which found its way into the courtroom.

The family feud started in 2017 when Stephen Early‘s son Thomas noticed the Rockwell illustrations hanging on the walls of the White House in the background of a televised interview with Donald Trump. Until then, he thought the drawings were in storage. His sister Helen Early Elam had loaned the Rockwells to the White House in 1978. Her son William Elam agreed to allow the White House to keep them once he gained ownership. However, according to several other members of the early family, the Rockwells were part of their collective inheritance, meaning Helen and William had no right to loan the works to any institution without their consent. The subsequent lawsuit alleged that Elam lent the Rockwell illustrations to the White House to keep them from the rest of the family and prevent them from contesting his ownership, essentially using the White House to launder a piece of art. In total, the illustrations are estimated to be worth around $8 million. The other parties to the lawsuit, William’s aunt and cousins, asked for $350,000 in punitive damages and that ownership be officially transferred to them.

Pretrial proceedings commenced on April 5th in the Virginia court. And now Judge Michael Nachmanoff has upheld William Elam’s claim to ownership. The outcome of the case, according to the judge, was actually rather clear. According to the documentation submitted, the illustrations were not part of Stephen Early‘s estate when he passed away in 1951. He did not own them at the time of his death, meaning “he had already gifted them during his lifetime”. Therefore, they were not part of the family’s collective inheritance, as Thomas Early had initially claimed. The documentation matches Helen and William Elam’s claim that Helen received the illustrations as a gift from her father upon her graduation from the Pratt Institute in 1949. Furthermore, the accusations of using the White House to keep the Rockwells away from the rest of the family now seem ridiculous since the Elams did not do so anonymously as the plaintiffs claimed.

The White House took down the Rockwell illustrations in 2022 after the dispute became more publicly known. Whether or not William Elam will have the illustrations returned to the walls of the West Wing is uncertain at this time.