Norman Rockwell Works Dispute Finally Over?

Norman Rockwell Works Dispute Includes Pieces Once Hanging in the White House and It Might be Finally Resolved.

Nov 6, 2023By Angela Davic, News, Discoveries, In-depth Reporting, and Analysis
Norman Rockwell
American Painter N.R. Courtesy of Getty Images.


Norman Rockwell is an American painter and illustrator, whose artworks hung for generations in the White House. Now, there is a heated legal battle between successor family members about who owns the pieces. It seems that this court process came to an end. A federal judge guaranteed the succession assert of only one of the potential descendants, William Nile Elam III.


Norman Rockwell Pieces Recognized by Thomas Early

Norman Rockwell
Photo Bettman, via Getty Images.


The complex argument revolved around a set of cartoons called “You Want to See the President”. The painter completed the pieces during a 1943 visit to the White House. Also, he published the completed works in the “The Saturday Evening Post”. They feature several iconic American individuals, such as a senator and a beauty contest queen. All of them gathered to meet Franklin D. Roosevelt.


Overall, from 1978 until 2022, they were on display in the White House. Stephen T. Early, the president’s press secretary, received the initial creations when the painter finished them. But, Early’s heirs are fighting over who gets to keep what. The competition started in 2017. At that time, Thomas Early, Early’s son, observed the artworks, displayed in the White House’s West Wing.


Norman Rockwell
An illustration from Norman Rockwell’s 1943 series, You Want to See the President. Courtesy of the U.S. District Court for Eastern Virginia.


He concluded that his nephew William Nile Elam II lent them with no family consent. He also asked for the artwork’s removal, which happened last year. Elam’s account states that Stephen Early gave the drawings to Helen Early Elam, his daughter. She then passed them down to her son William Elam, who in 1978 gave them to the White House.

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How It All Ended?

eleanor roosevelt with female journalists
Eleanor Roosevelt’s Ladies Only press conference at the White House, via White House History


Elam requested possession from the Virginia District Court in February of this year in an attempt to cement this version of circumstances. Despite Thomas Early’s passing in 2020, his sons and another sister submitted an appeal against Elam III. She claimed Helen Early Elam was not able to lawfully give her son exclusive ownership of the visuals. Why? Because she only owned one-third of the series.


“William Elam took the Rockwells to the White House to conceal his removal of the artwork from his grandmother’s house”, the filing also alleged, “and to hide the Rockwells for a significant period to ‘launder’ or ‘wash’ the ownership of artwork, in the effort to obtain sole ownership”. The unidentified loan of the works, according to Thomas Early’s cousins, was a component of Elam’s plot. Along with $350,000 in penalties, they demanded possession.


betty ford official portrait
Official portrait of Betty Ford by Felix de Cossio, 1977, via the White House Historical Association


Elam’s claim was upheld by Judge Michael S. Nachmanoff of the Federal District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, on October 31. He found that the case had a “clear outcome,” in part because when Stephen Early died in 1951, the illustrations were not listed in the official accounting of his estate, a document that was signed under oath by his wife Helen Early.

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By Angela DavicNews, Discoveries, In-depth Reporting, and AnalysisAngela is a journalism student at the Faculty of Political Science in Belgrade and received a scholarship for continued education in Prague. She completed her internship at the daily newspaper DANAS and worked as an executive editor at Talas.