New exhibit details Rockwell deception hidden behind Arlington wall
BENNINGTON — A new exhibit opening in early November at the Monument Arts and Culture Center in Bennington walks visitors through one of the most exciting and bizarre discoveries in the art world — the story of a famous Saturday Evening Post painting by America’s favorite artist, Norman Rockwell, a nearly-perfect hoax, and a hidden masterpiece squirreled away for 30 years behind a fake wall in Arlington.
“It’s interesting because in the very beginning, I did feel a little bit of fear of what the news media might say,” said Don Trachte Jr., son of the famous illustrator and cartoonist Don Trachte of Arlington. “On April 17th, 2006, my brother and I found a hidden wall behind a bookcase my dad built in his house in Arlington. When we took the bookcase apart, I said, ‘Oh, my God, there’s the painting.’”
The new exhibit in Bennington sets up a detailed timeline, where visitors walk through the events and art in what the New York Times aptly described as one of the most important and exciting stories in the modern art world.
“I was beginning to believe that the original painting might be gone forever,” Trachte said.
The story begins with five of the most famous artists in the world at the time, all living in the small town of Arlington. Between 1939 and 1955, these famous illustrators created over 270 Saturday Evening Post covers and major illustrations, one more famous than the other and none more famous than those painted by Rockwell. One of those famous paintings, “Breaking Home Ties,” appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on Sept. 25, 1954. That painting would be the last Rockwell would paint while still living in Vermont.
Don Trachte Sr., a cartoonist and author of the popular “Henry” comic strip, befriended Rockwell, his neighbor, eventually purchasing the painting directly from Rockwell in 1962 for $900. Over the years, Trachte acquired several more paintings from Arlington artists, including Meade Scheaffer, Virginia Webb, Gene Pelham, and Lee Ehrich. When Trachte and his wife divorced in 1973, they divided the collection. He built a new studio where he hung three works, including “Breaking Home Ties.” His ex-wife hung five other paintings in her home.
Eventually, an aging Trachte moved into assisted living. With his studio empty, the children placed “Breaking Home Ties” in the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass, for safekeeping. Trachte passed away in 2005 at age 89.
About a year later, a portrait artist named John Sanden, who had befriended Rockwell, visited the Stockbridge exhibit and immediately proclaimed the “Breaking Home Ties” painting a fraud. Sanden wrote several letters to the museum, but the museum kept that painting up for three years. The family of Trachte had the painting tested by experts in Williamstown, Mass., with no change in the status as an authentic Rockwell. They also contacted several auction houses in New York City, including Sotheby’s, but no one thought it wasn’t an original, even though the thought of a possible fake lingered for the family.
In 2006, while going through their father’s empty house, the brothers discovered something off about a bookcase their father built in his studio. When they looked closer, they found a sliding wall behind the books and shelves. Behind that wall they found several paintings that matched those in their mother’s home. When they slid it further, they found the original Rockwell “Breaking Home Ties.”
They discovered that Trachte had copied the Rockwell and several other paintings so well the fakes were barely perceptible, even to trained experts.
“The first thing that went through my mind is we have to immediately get to the museum in Stockbridge and explain to them what happened,” Trachte said. “Because while I was excited about the fact that we found the actual painting, it was an embarrassment to them.”
Instead, the museum embraced the story, claiming this was an excellent opportunity to tell the true story of what happened. After he talked to the museum, Trachte went to tell his mom what was going on.
“This just doesn’t surprise me at all,” she said.
When asked if he could ask his dad what he was thinking, Trachte smiled.
“The fun of the story is that we really don’t know. We have no real idea,” he said. “A lot of people speculate about why. Was it financial? Was it spite? Maybe it was just to prove that he could do it as well as anyone. My father thought it was disdainful to even ask for money for paintings. He would remind us over and over many times that those paintings belong to us kids. I think he did it to protect that collection of paintings for us. Once a lie is out there, it’s hard to go back and try and make it right. As you get older, it becomes bigger in your mind, and you can’t get over that. The longer you hang on to that, you can never go back. You know, the story is so bizarre, and I think it’s because he wasn’t a thief. He wasn’t a forger in that monetary sense. He wasn’t trying to make a profit. He was just trying to protect it.”
As Trachte tells the story, he notes that’s exactly what Norman Rockwell did in all his paintings — tell a story. Except now, the story is in a gallery. The show opens on Nov. 4.
Visitors will see some of the original paintings side by side with the copies painted by Trachte. The artist’s drawing desk and paintbrushes, as well as several dozen original Saturday Evening Post covers, and reactions from the art world are also exhibited. Numerous artifacts, including the check Trachte used to purchase Rockwell’s painting, and the divorce decree naming where “Breaking Home Ties” will reside, is also part of the exhibit.
Trachte’s forgery of the Rockwell masterpiece hangs next to a copy of the original work. The original painting was eventually sold at a Sotheby’s auction for $15.4 million — a record at that time for a Rockwell painting — and is in a private collection.
“I want to tell the story,” Trachte says. “I don’t think I’ve ever been happy with the way the story’s ever been told. I hope that people will come through and really understand it, say, ‘Wow, what a great story.’ If they do that, I’m thrilled because the story alone is that good.”
The exhibit opens Saturday, Nov. 4, at the Monument Arts and Cultural Center at 44 Gypsy Road in Bennington. For more information, call 917-450-7736.