No Flattery Is Found in an Imitation of a Rockwell
08.04.2006 By CAROL VOGEL
Original "Breaking Home Ties," left, and the copy at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.
Everyone thought the conservator did it.
But as it turns out, it was the husband, in the throes of a bitter divorce.
For several years, museum curators and American painting experts had been troubled by discrepancies between Norman Rockwell's 1954 canvas "Breaking Home Ties" and tear sheets of the legendary Saturday Evening Post cover for which he painted it.
Comparing the two, experts mused that the painting's colors seemed oddly washed out. They conjectured that a zealous conservator had overcleaned the work, which depicts a fresh-faced boy about to leave home for the first time, posed with his dog and his craggy-faced father on the running board of an old truck.
The painting's provenance was undisputed: Don Trachte, known as the cartoonist who took over the Sunday edition of the comic strip "Henry" in the 1940's, bought the painting from Rockwell for $900 in 1960. It became his prized possession.
So prized, it seems, that when Mr. Trachte and his wife, Elizabeth, jointly filed for divorce more than a decade later, the cartoonist cooked up a ruse, presumably to ensure keeping the treasure himself, hiding the original in a secret niche behind a wall in his house in Sandgate, Vt.
What he and his wife subsequently divvied up — the Rockwell and seven other paintings by other local artists — were therefore copies, presumably made, their children say, by Mr. Trachte himself.
Last month — more than three decades after the divorce, and nearly a year after Mr. Trachte's death — his son Dave, 54, noticed a strange gap in a wood-paneled wall in his father's house. When he and his brother Don Jr., 59, gave it a shove, the wall suddenly slid open, revealing the Rockwell and the other canvases hanging on a wall in the hidden compartment.
"Every divorce is always a little messy," conceded Don Jr. in an interview.
Still awed by their March 17 discovery, the Trachtes' four children said they were unsure what to do. "We have no plans to sell it," Don Jr. said of the Rockwell painting. "We're still just taking it all in." So far, he said, they have found no note or other explanation from their father.
Under the 1973 divorce settlement, legal ownership of the eight paintings passed to the couple's children. Mr. Trachte (pronounced TRACK-tee) was allowed to keep the Rockwell in his possession, however, and it hung on a thinly paneled wall above a grand piano in his living room. The other works — by artists like Gene Pelham, Mead Schaeffer and George Hughes — went to his wife's new home in Arlington, Vt., without her suspecting forgery.
Don Trachte Jr., his eldest son, speculated that his father hung the copy rather than the original because he wanted to keep the genuine Rockwell safe. "His purpose was preserving and protecting the painting for his kids," he said.
The original paintings meant a great deal to Mr. Trachte, he said, because he and Rockwell belonged to a tightknit group of artists that included Grandma Moses, Pelham and Schaeffer, all of whom lived and worked in the Arlington area.
Experts suggest that "Breaking Home Ties" is worth at least $5 million. On the cover of The Saturday Evening Post on Sept. 25, 1954, it was voted the second-most popular image in the magazine's history (after another Rockwell painting, "Saying Grace," on the magazine's Nov. 24, 1951, cover). Before Mr. Trachte acquired it, it was exhibited in museums from Moscow to Cairo to Washington.
Occasionally family members would hear from collectors who wanted to buy the Rockwell. H. Ross Perot once expressed interest, Don Jr. said.
In 2002, when Mr. Trachte, then in his 80's, moved to an assisted-living home in Manchester, Vt., his children asked the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., to store the painting for safekeeping. Soon afterward, the museum included "Breaking Home Ties" in a show about Rockwell's Vermont. In anticipation of the exhibition, museum curators sent the canvas to the Williamstown Art Conservation Center in Massachusetts for cleaning. Its surface was grimy after years of exposure to smoke from a wood stove.
When the painting returned, the curators noticed that the boy's face looked different from the one on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. So did the coloration of the canvas. They decided that the differences resulted from poor restoration, climate fluctuations and years of travel.
"In those days, when paintings traveled, curators would simply roll up the canvas and put it in a tube," Don Jr. said. "So it was perfectly possible it had been damaged in travel."
In hindsight, he said, alarm bells should have begun sounding years ago.
It was only when he saw the original, Don Jr. said, that he realized how memories recede. "As a boy I remember there was a rough edge to the left of the canvas that almost looked like a wrinkle," he said. "But I never thought about it all these years until I saw the original."
Two months ago, he said that his brother Dave found two photographs of the Rockwell in a box of family snapshots. "As we studied them, we noticed that one looked like the painting," Don Jr. said. "The other didn't. They were shot in the same frame and in the same position."
The two brothers went to the museum and compared the Rockwell on the wall with the magazine tear sheets. "Something was wrong, but I couldn't account for it," Don Jr. said. "I noticed the face of the boy was somewhat different, particularly around the lip and the eyelids, but I tried to rationalize that it had faded over time."
Even more confounding, on March 13, conservators at Williamstown confirmed that no restoration work had been done on the painting, he said. "That left me thinking it's either really the original or my dad had made a copy."
So Dave Trachte, who lives near his father's former house, began searching every inch of the dwelling until he discovered the gap in the wall paneling.
In an excited state, he called Don Jr., who dropped everything and drove 100 miles from his house in Burlington. "As I was driving you can't imagine the stuff going through my head," Don Jr. said. When he arrived, the brothers removed the panels, and the adjacent wall slid open.
When Laurie Norton Moffat, director of the Norman Rockwell Museum, heard of their discovery, "my jaw was on the floor," she said. Starting today, the museum will be exhibiting all eight copies and the originals side by side.
Mr. Trachte's ex-wife, Elizabeth Markey, now 98, is apparently unfazed. When her eldest son gave her the news, he said, her response was a wry, "Doesn't surprise me."