Photos led family to hunt down original Rockwell painting

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(Host) Last week the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, revealed that a famous painting on its walls was a fake.

The real Rockwell canvas turned up recently in Sandgate, Vermont. The story has all the earmarks of a high stakes art hoax.

Except that the perpetrator actually owned the painting.

VPR’s Susan Keese has the story.

(Keese) Don Trachte’s kids grew up looking at the Rockwell painting, “Breaking Home Ties.” The 1954 Saturday Evening Post cover depicts an old farmer sitting on the running board of his pickup with his son. The boy is all dressed up, about to leave for college. Trachte bought the painting from Rockwell in 1960. It’s worth about $5 million now.

Trachte, who died last May, was an artist himself. He drew the comic strip “Henry” for years. He was part of an enclave of illustrators who gathered around Rockwell, when he lived in nearby Arlington.

The four Trachte children knew that the painting would be theirs someday. Before their father died, Don Jr. and his brother Dave took it to the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge Mass. Don Jr. says they wanted to share it with the world.

(Don Trachte) “And that’s when some people started to question the painting .”

(Keese) Experts noticed color discrepancies between the so-called original and early prints. There was something different about the young man’s face.

The brothers couldn’t believe the painting was a fake until this winter when Dave, a mechanic in West Arlington, found a box of photos in his father’s House in Sandgate.

(Dave Trachte) “We found pictures here that Dad had taken of the two paintings – both the replica and the original. And after we studied them long enough we finally realized that dad made a replica.”

(Keese) The siblings searched the house their father had built, mostly by hand, after the parents divorced in the early seventies. They began to think the original was lost forever. Then Dave noticed an odd gap between a book case and the paneling behind the piano.

(Dave Trachte) “And I just kind of pulled on that and I peeked in there and that’s when I saw the edges of some paintings.”

(Keese) He called his brother Don, who drove down from Burlington prepared to tear a wall out. But that didn’t prove necessary.

(Don Trachte) “We began to work this panel, let’s see Dave, by lifting this up a little. That’s what we did. (Panel squeaks.) There we go .”

(Keese) On a wall behind the paneling the brothers found the Rockwell painting and seven other originals by Vermont artists from Rockwell’s era.

The originals and replicas are part of an exhibit that opened this week at the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. An article in the New York Times speculated that Trachte copied the paintings and hid the originals to keep them out of his divorce settlement. The family believes he just wanted to keep the paintings safe for his children and for posterity.

(Keese) “But why didn’t he tell anyone before he died?
(Dave Trachte) “Ha ha. Well that’s another part of the story that we still have to uncover.”

(Keese) Dave thinks his father left clues. They say he could have copied the Rockwell perfectly if he hadn’t wanted anyone to notice. He was always urging his children to be more observant. They say a trick like this would have been just like him.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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