LOS ANGELES - A Norman Rockwell work stolen from suburban St. Louis more than three decades ago was found in Steven Spielberg's art collection, the FBI announced Friday.
The painting, Rockwell's "Russian Schoolroom," was snatched during a late-night burglary at a gallery in Clayton, Mo., on June 25, 1973.
The Oscar-winning filmmaker purchased the painting in 1989 from a legitimate dealer and didn't know it was stolen until his staff spotted its image last week on an FBI Web site listing stolen works of art, the bureau said in a statement.
After Spielberg's staff brought it to the attention of authorities, an FBI agent and an art expert from the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino inspected the painting at one of Spielberg's offices and confirmed its authenticity Friday morning. Early FBI estimates put the painting's value at $700,000, officials said.
Spielberg is cooperating with the FBI and will retain possession of the Russian Schoolroom until its "disposition can be determined," the bureau said.
Several after-hour calls to Spielberg's publicist and attorneys were not immediately returned.
The oil-on-canvas painting shows children in a classroom with a bust of communist leader Vladimir Lenin. It was nabbed in a gallery heist and then resurfaced briefly in legitimate art forums before disappearing again. At the time of the theft, the work was 16 inches by 37 inches.
Mary Ellen Shortland, who worked at the long-closed Clayton Art Gallery, recalled Friday that someone from Missouri paid $25,000 for the painting after seeing it during a Rockwell exhibition featuring mostly lithographs.
The client agreed to keep it on display, she said, but a few nights later someone smashed the gallery's glass door and escaped with the painting.
"That was all they took. That's what they wanted, that painting," Shortland recalled.
The gallery refunded the client's money, and there was no sign of the work for years. Then in 1988, it was auctioned in New Orleans.
In 2004, the FBI's newly formed Art Crime Team initiated an investigation to recover the work after determining it had been advertised for sale at a Rockwell exhibit in New York in 1989.
It wasn't immediately known whether Spielberg purchased the painting at that New York exhibit.
Rockwell's work often resonates with people because much of it captures moments from everyday life, such as a boy watching his father shave, family members saying grace over a Thanksgiving turkey or a young girl having a dress fitting.
The artist died at age 84 in 1978. While "Russian Schoolroom" appeared in Look magazine, the artist is best known for the covers he did for The Saturday Evening Post. More than 300 Rockwell creations appeared on the cover of the publication.
Associated Press writer Betsy Taylor in St. Louis contributed to this report.
On the 'Net:
FBI Art Crime Team: http://www.fbi.gov/hq/cid/arttheft/arttheft.htm
Norman Rockwell Museum: http://www.nrm.org