For decades, through seven presidential administrations starting with Jimmy Carter, four works by Norman Rockwell hung inside The White House, at times in a hallway not far from the Oval Office.
The drawings titled “So You Want to See the President!” show members of Congress, military officers, a beauty pageant winner and others waiting for an audience with Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Among those depicted in the drawings is Stephen T. Early, F.D.R.’s press secretary, to whom Rockwell gave the images in 1943.
Last summer, as reported by Politico, the Rockwells suddenly disappeared from a White House wall, a decision vaguely attributed to a family request. Now the contentiousness that drove that decision has become clear in legal filings that detail how those works came to be at the center of a bitter dispute within the Early family.
The disagreement has pitted cousin against cousin, with competing claims of how the Rockwells were passed down through generations and how they ended up in the White House.
One side of the family has accused the other of deceit and fraud, of secretly loaning the works to the White House as part of an effort to boost an ownership claim on them. The other side has been accused in turn of making “bogus” and “outrageous” allegations.
In one of the more remarkable contentions, relatives of Thomas A. Early, a son of the former press secretary, asserts that he did not even realize the artworks had left a family homestead until he spotted them on a White House wall in 2017 while watching President Trump being interviewed on television, according to court papers.
Mr. Early then wrote to the White House curator, asking about the works and saying he suspected they had been lent without his permission by his nephew, William Nile Elam III.
“We need to know who loaned those paintings to the White House,” Mr. Early wrote. “These works of art were the most precious and prized possession of my mother and father.”
But Mr. Elam has contested the ownership claim of his relatives and last month asked a federal court in Virginia to declare him the sole owner of the works. He said that many years ago, his grandfather, the press secretary, had given the works to Helen Early Elam, his mother and the press secretary’s daughter.
The legal battle, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, has led in recent days to a counterclaim by Mr. Elam’s aunt, Suzanne J. Early, and two of his cousins, Michael S. Early and Stephen Timothy Early. They have challenged whether such a gift ever occurred and declared that together they own a two-thirds share of the Rockwell works.
Rockwell created the drawings after spending time at the White House to make a “visual report” on the process of getting to see Roosevelt.
The drawings were ultimately annotated and published in 1943 by The Saturday Evening Post, but Rockwell gave the originals to Mr. Early. The counterclaim said Mr. Early told Rockwell he was as proud of the works as Churchill was of the British air force.
In 2017, the White House curator at the time, William G. Allman, wrote one family member and said that “an unofficial appraisal” of the drawings by colleagues at a major auction house put their value at $8 million, according to a copy of that letter supplied by Robert Goldman, a lawyer for the Early relatives who say they retain ownership interest in the works.
Laurie Norton Moffatt, the director and chief executive of the Norman Rockwell Museum, said “So You Want to See the President!” was a prime example of a type of work Rockwell did between 1943 and 1948 in which he created panoramic depictions of life in various parts of the country. The works showing the White House, she added, included a Rockwell trademark: “trying to find lightness and humor in very serious situations.”
Among the White House visitors shown in the drawings are a Scottish military officer wearing a tartan kilt, a woman wearing a yellow dress and a sash reading “Miss America,” and U.S. Senator Thomas Terry Connally of Texas. Journalists are shown in several scenes, lounging in chairs and reading newspapers, dashing for pay phones and gathered around Mr. Early, who is shown with a pipe clenched in his teeth.
Mr. Early, who was described in The New York Times as Roosevelt’s trusted friend, often smoothed things over when the president feuded with reporters; in 1945, he announced Roosevelt’s death. Mr. Early died in 1951 at age 62 of a heart ailment.
According to Mr. Elam’s lawsuit, Mr. Early gave the Rockwell works to his daughter, Helen, two years before his death. She had just graduated from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where she studied advertising design. Years later, in 1978, the court papers said, she decided to loan them to the White House, an arrangement later continued by her son to whom she gave the drawings.
In his lawsuit, Mr. Elam argues that one of his mother’s brothers, Stephen T. Early Jr., suggested that she sell the works to help pay for her medical and living expenses, a decision that those court papers assert demonstrates that other members of the family understood they had “no ownership interest in the Illustrations.”
The Early family counterclaim challenges the veracity of the gift account, asserting that Helen had once asked her brother Thomas for permission to exhibit the Rockwells in San Francisco in 1980, a sign that she recognized she was not the sole owner. A decade later, the counterclaim says, she wrote to a museum and said she had received the Rockwells as a gift in 1960, nine years after her father had died.
The counterclaim argues that the works had long been in the possession of the press secretary’s widow, Helen Wrenn Early, but that soon after she died in 1978, Mr. Elam took them out of his grandmother’s home and brought them to the White House, where they were placed on loan with the lender listed as anonymous. Those court papers describe that as an effort to “launder” or “wash” the ownership of the artwork and promote sole ownership by Mr. Elam.
Mr. Elam’s lawyers, David G. Fiske and Thomas C. Junker, said in an interview that they took strong exception to those assertions, saying that there was no basis to accuse Mr. Elam or his mother of misconduct. The loan to the White House, they said, had been initiated by Mr. Elam’s mother in 1978 after an attempted break-in at her mother’s home in Virginia where she and her son had been living for about a decade.
The lawyers added that they were unaware of any evidence that either Mr. Elam or his mother had ever asked the White House to conceal the identity of the lender. They provided a copy of a program for a 1980 exhibition in San Francisco of materials related to the presidency that lists the Rockwells and says they were lent to the White House by Ms. Elam.
They also provided a copy of a 1980 letter to her from Clement Conger, then the White House curator, thanking her for loaning the four Rockwell panels for the San Francisco show and adding, “The drawings you lent contributed so much to the success of the exhibition.”
Mr. Goldman said that Mr. Conger had addressed his letter only to Ms. Elam because the White House was unaware that other family members shared ownership of the works.