Somebody may have stolen a Norman Rockwell painting worth more than $1 million from a warehouse in Queens, N.Y.?


“Stolen” may be premature, but the painting in question—Sport, which was once featured on the cover of a Saturday Evening Post in 1939—has definitely disappeared. In mid-September, it was discovered missing from the Welpak Art Moving & Storage facility in Queens, which stores art for numerous museums, galleries, and private collectors, according to its website. Mark Fishstein, the New York Police Department’s “art cop”—he’s the NYPD’s only detective devoted to stolen art, a position he’s held for more than 11 years—can’t reveal who owns the painting, what it was doing in storage, or any leads or theories he has on where it might be today.

But if the police are involved, that means it was probably stolen, right?

According to Julian Radcliffe, chairman of the Art Loss Register, a London company that claims it has “the world’s largest database of stolen art,” says that sometimes art just goes missing. “We’ve had a lot of interesting cases where art has just been lost in warehouses or gets sent to the wrong address,” he says. “Sometimes warehouses are sold, and the new owner cleans them out and finds the missing art. It happens all the time.”

A recent discovery happened in 2011, at a British warehouse, where 400 drawings, sketches, and notebooks by the 20th-century Dutch expressionist Karel Appel were discovered in a box. The collection had been missing since 2002, while in transit to the Karel Appel Foundation in Amsterdam, and presumed stolen. But the art work, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, had been put on the wrong truck.

Let’s say hypothetically this Norman Rockwell painting was stolen. How much could the thieves get for it?

Rockwell’s Sport was last sold at a Sotheby’s auction in New York City on May 22. The winning bid was $1,085,000. So it’s worth at least a million, and probably more.

Why more?

Sotheby’s is planning a major auction of Rockwell paintings on Dec. 4, including some of his most iconic and recognized work, like The Gossips and Walking to Church. Sotheby’s estimates that the collection could fetch more than $24 million, and some paintings, particularly Saying Grace, could break auction records for a single Normal Rockwell work. Breaking Home Ties sold at Sotheby’s in 2006 for $15.4 million, the highest price ever paid for an original Rockwell, but there are predictions that Saying Grace could bring in close to $20 million.

And that’s going to affect the worth of other Rockwell paintings?

Absolutely, says Judy Goffman Cutler, an art dealer and gallery owner who founded the American Illustrators Gallery in New York City and the National Museum of American Illustration in Newport, R.I. “Sport may be appraised at a million today, but it’ll be worth a lot more after the Sotheby’s auction,” she says. Regardless, Cutler says the painting is unsellable. “I don’t know what they’re going to do with it,” she says. “My guess is, it was taken by someone who has to have a Rockwell in their collection, or they don’t know what they have, they’re unaware that it’s an original. But they’ll never be able to sell it. You can’t sell a hot painting.”

Wait, there isn’t a black market for stolen art? Don’t be ridiculous—haven’t you seen The Thomas Crown Affair?

The harsh truth is that there is no black market for stolen art, according to Detective Fishstein. “I’ve never come across an underground collector who buys stolen art for his underground collection,” he says. “I think that’s Hollywood stuff.” Fishstein can’t imagine somebody buying a famous painting and not being able to brag about it. “Art collectors are exhibitionists,” he says. “They want to show off their art collection. If you have to hide it in the basement, what’s the point?”

Will they ever be able to track down Sport?

“It can take anywhere from days to never,” says Fishstein. At least one Rockwell painting has been missing for more than three decades. Rockwell’s Boy Asleep With Hoe, valued at around $600,000, was stolen from a home in Cherry Hill, N.J., in 1976, and it has yet to be found, despite an ongoing investigation by the FBI’s Art Theft team.

Do Rockwell paintings get stolen a lot?

The Art Loss Register currently has more than 40 stolen Rockwells in its database, but Radcliffe adds, “we also have over 1,000 missing Picassos. You have to keep it in perspective.” Keeping track of stolen art is no easy task. Sometimes a painting will be classified as stolen even though it’s not. That’s how Steven Spielberg ended up with what he thought was a stolen Norman Rockwell painting.

Steven Spielberg, as in E.T.-and-Jaws Steven Spielberg?

Correct. In 1989, he bought Russian Schoolroom from Cutler for a reported $200,000. (Cutler sold Spielberg most of his Rockwell collection, she says.) But in 2007, his assistant noticed that the painting was listed as a stolen artwork on an FBI website. Spielberg called the authorities, and then things got messy.

The painting’s original owner, the late Jack Solomon, sued both Spielberg and the FBI, claiming that Russian Schoolroom was his stolen property even though it wasn’t. Eventually Cutler took the heat, giving the director another Rockwell in exchange for the alleged stolen painting, just to untangle him from the legal fight. After a protracted court battle, Cutler was exonerated in 2011, and Russian Schoolroom remains in her possession.

So Steven Spielberg collects Norman Rockwell paintings?

Yes, and so does his friend, the director George Lucas. The two auteurs shared their collections for a 2010 Smithsonian exhibit. Ross Perot is also a Rockwell collector, as is Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton. And interest in the artist is on the rise, thanks to the upcoming Sotheby’s auction. “I’ve gotten more calls than ever about Rockwell,” says Cutler. “Everybody wants to buys one of his paintings now.” Have the possible theft in Queens and the Spielberg incident made her more paranoid? “Oh god yes,” she laughs. “I told security

[at her galleries], ‘You better keep an eye on every Rockwell. I’m not going through this again.’”

(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in Bloomberg Businessweek.)