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Kites Attract Lightning in Art Ownership Clash

October 05, 2002|BILL LEUKHARDT | HARTFORD COURANT

NEW BRITAIN, Conn. — John Falter's painting of country boys flying kites over sun-dappled fields evoked nostalgia for a simpler America when the Saturday Evening Post used it as its cover on March 13, 1950.

Now this minor gem of American art has evoked something from a harsher America: a lawsuit for ownership.

An Indiana company that owns the Saturday Evening Post is suing the New Britain Museum of American Art, which got the painting as a gift in 1977 from Kenneth Stuart.

The lawsuit claims that Stuart, the Post's art director from 1942 to 1963, took the Falter piece without permission and didn't legally own the work when he donated it. Stuart died in 1993.

"We knew the piece was missing. We searched and found it in New Britain," said Anthony Lo Cicero, the lawyer for the Saturday Evening Post Society, a division of Curtis Publishing. "We aren't saying the museum knowingly did anything wrong by accepting the gift. But this is a valuable piece of artwork. It belongs to us. We want it back."

"We have lots of documentation for this painting and its donation," museum director Douglas Hyland said. "It's not like we kept this a secret. We've shown it since 1977. We've loaned to other museums."

Hyland calls "Boys and Kites" an important work by an outstanding artist, "a charming example of America in an easier period of its society. We hope to retain it."

Falter's work was recently appraised by the museum at $30,000 to $40,000--a price that reflects a fast-growing interest in original magazine artwork.

It's a class of artworks on paper called ephemera, overlooked for decades until collectors began searching them in the 1970s. Top price for a magazine cover painting is the $4.5 million paid in auction last year for "Rosie the Riveter" by Norman Rockwell, whose paintings also graced the Saturday Evening Post.

The Saturday Evening Post Society always retained reproduction rights to Falter's "Boys and Kites" and all other cover art it featured by Rockwell and others. Those rights allow the society to create posters of works and sell use of the copyrighted images for ads and other purposes.

But now the market for illustration art has come out of the dustbin. In some cases, the original artwork is now worth more than the reproduction rights.

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Bill Leukhardt is a reporter for the Hartford Courant, a Tribune company.

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