Monday, May 14, 2012

Joe Simon, The F.B.I. and the Strange Case of the Missing Artwork


It's common knowledge that in the early 1970s a rather large amount of art was stolen from DC Comics and in the early 1980s another sizable cache of art was stolen from Marvel Comics.  In the comic book art circles there are a number of collectors who refuse to acknowledge that the art was stolen, instead they prefer to call it ‘liberated’.  In the years leading up to the DC Comics heist the policy was to destroy original art outright, or to give pages and covers away as gifts and prizes to fans.  Occasionally artists would ask for, and subsequently take art back, or other professionals would simply take what was lying around.  However DC Comics policies meant that many artists never saw the original art that they worked on once they handed it in, until it was offered for sale collectors market.  The story became an open topic of debate when a short lived fanzine, Inside Comics, ran a detailed article on how the theft happened, complete with commentary and listed some of the stolen art. 

According to the article, the art was stored at the request of Sol Harrison.  "We had long discussions with our legal department on the matter," Harrison was quoted as saying in the article.  "They seemed to feel that we should hold on to all our artwork. They were really frightened that if someone had the originals to a complete story, they would run to South America and print it. We had copyrights to protect, and the legal department felt holding the artwork was the best procedure.  We have had thousands of pages around after a year or two, eventually, we had to get a storage space, but there was still plenty of art around the offices."  The opportunity to steal came when DC Comics moved from Third Avenue to the Rockefeller Centre.  To facilitate this process the art was gathered up and stacked onto pallets for the move, but, sadly, nobody was keeping track of who was actually moving it.  In the same article an un-named DC staffer is quoted as saying, “In retrospect, of course, it was a dumb move.  Had Sol known any better, maybe there would have been an in and out inventory. But nobody gave a shit. The art went in and out and no one looked twice."  With that in mind it should have come as no great surprise when DC discovered a fairly sizable amount of art missing, including some choice covers and pages by Neal Adams, Jack Kirby, Bernie Wrightson, Michael Kaluta and others.  According to the same article, written when this was fresh in everyone’s minds and recollections were sharp, the theft was apparently an inside job.  An anonymous art collector said at the time, also in the fanzine, "The plan was simple.  Have a friend on the moving crew 'misplace' a flat of artwork. Later, if it was discovered missing, it could easily be found without getting in trouble. If no one noticed it was missing, it was just taken away later.  Certain staff members had decided to rip-off some of the pages, and it was an inside job."  According to an inventory done later, a reported 1928 pages of original art and covers were stolen and soon made their way onto the open market.  The first time the art appeared is when the thief attended a New York convention and began selling pages to dealers, most of whom have since sold that art for very large profits.  A lot of this art never makes it to the open market, despite the pleas of ‘liberation’, clearly nobody wants to run the risk of a legal confrontation.  For years Neal Adams has made it clear that any DC art that he’d drawn that was part of the heist and was considered to be stolen and as such belonged to him.  DC Comics also released an open letter t the time stating that they wanted the art back and threatened legal action, but, as time later told, this was an empty threat at best.  Adams has since given up his fight and now we might have a clue as to why, and that involves the F.B.I, DC Comics and Joe Simon.

In 1997 an art dealer contacted Joe with an inventory list of 300 pages of his original art that another dealer was openly selling.  When asked how the dealer had come into possession of the art, the response was that Joe had ‘gifted’ the pages to the dealers father, a claim Joe denied; as the art had never been returned to him by DC, he could not have possibly gifted it to anyone.  DC Comics then drafted a letter asking for the return of the art and also refuting the story of how the dealer came to own the art.  Once again the reply was that the art would not be returned, so Joe Simon simply turned to the F.B.I. and requested their involvement and here’s where the story got very interesting.

Despite all of the chest beating at the time, DC Comics never bothered to contact the NYPD about any art theft in the 1970s, or at any other time later, let alone file an official report.  This lack of contact seemed to set to hamper any investigation and that oversight, along with Marvel Comics not reporting their own art theft of the early 1980s is still a massive sticking point today.  The F.B.I had just begun to investigate Joe Simon’s allegations of theft when the dealer dropped his own bombshell in the form of a legal letter to DC Comics demanding that they cease and desist with claims of impropriety.  Amongst the claims in the letter were a denial of the gifting to the father claim, a statement also denying that any art had been stolen from DC in the 1970s, a demand for proof that the art was indeed owned, and not abandoned, by Joe Simon and a demand that if DC pursued the claim then legal action would be taken to prevent any slander and to protect the dealers right of title and right to sell the artwork without cause.  Never mind Joe Simon’s rights. 

Bolstered by the encouragement and support of the United States Attorney’s Office, the F.B.I proposed to set up an undercover sting operation using another art dealer.  However before this could happen, they gave the original source of the art a chance to explain himself and thus interviewed him in the presence of his lawyer.  What was revealed was that the original source of the art was formerly a graphic artist who had worked as a Director of Design in the early 1980s at an un-named firm in Farmingdale, where part of his duties was overseeing junior artists.  According to the graphic artist, one of Joe Simon’s daughters and her then boyfriend were also employed at the firm.  Around 1980 Joe's daughter mentioned her how her father had created Captain America and other characters, at which time the graphic artist expressed his interest in buying any original Joe Simon art.  A deal was made, $100 for the 300 disputed pages of art, this was witnessed by the boyfriend and the transaction was finished.  In 1997 the art was then handed over to another dealer for sale, and once DC became involved the graphic artist contacted Simon’s daughter who said she would neither confirm nor deny that any deal had taken place.  On the surface of things it appeared to be a very tall story.

The F.B.I then contacted other people involved with the view of interviewing them as part of the on-going investigation.  The dealer’s lawyers agreed to the request and assured the F.B.I that, “…once you meet with our client, you will conclude that, legally and factually, there has been no (such) impropriety.”  Again the claim was that Joe Simon had abandoned the art back in the 1970s and that it was in the dealer’s possession legally.  When you take into consideration that Joe Simon had valued the art at approximately $100,000, then you begin to understand the involvement of lawyers and the F.B.I.  The notes taken at both of these interviews give strong clues as to the identity of the people involved.  Another result of these interviews was a person who may have been acting for the dealer made contact with Joe Simon directly under the guise of arranging a commission.  During the resulting phone call, the third party made mention of the art deal, asking if Joe remembered it.  Joe steadfastly denied the story that his daughter sold 300 pages for $100, primarily as Joe had always told his children the true value of his original art.  Joe’s response to the claims and the resulting phone call were incredulous, and it felt it was beyond the realms of possibility that the circumstances of the deal could be believed – in Joe’s own words, “What are they asking us to think?  That ---------- somehow found the DC Comics warehouse, got possession of all the art and then sold it for $100?  This instance of ------- that this price was so very low is obviously part of a grand strategy of lies that I do not comprehend.”  The last line in the letter was telling, “------ and his family originally claimed that I had given him the art.  Maybe they grew tired of waiting for my demise.”  Joe recorded the phone conversation and sent the tape to the F.B.I. where it resides to this day.

The F.B.I continued its investigation.  They contacted Joe’s daughter who denied the claim of selling the art in the early 1980s and offered to take a polygraph test to prove her innocence.  The interview notes revealed that while Joe’s daughter had worked at the Farmingdale firm at the time in question, and had indeed brought Joe Simon art to the firm for people to view, she had not sold any art to the graphic artist.  Shortly before her interview, she had also been contacted by another person to see if she had remembered selling any art to the graphic artist, she also stated that she had not done so, and the call was ended with the person asking her if she had any of Joe’s art to sell at the time of the investigation.  The F.B.I also tracked down the alleged witness to the transaction, who turned out to be none other than Joe’s former son-in-law.  He stated that while he sold approximately 1,000 copies of Sick Magazine to two men for a sum between $200 to $300 at Joe’s request, he did not witness any transactions involving Joe's art but added that Joe’s daughter was, “...extremely intelligent and manipulative,” and that, “…it would not surprise him she had sold the drawings because (they) were dirt poor in 1981.”  Tellingly both Joe’s daughter and former son-in-law recounted occurrences of sexual harassment in the workplace at Farmingdale as the reason why they terminated their employment there.

Finally Joe Simon gave in.  A deal was reached whereby the art was to be sold, “…through a reputable auction house,” with Joe receiving 55% of the proceeds, after the action house’s cut.  Joe was also required to sign all of the artwork and give up any claim of theft or his ownership of the art.  The reason for this was that, put simply, there was no solid proof that the art had been stolen from DC, other than his word and that Joe admitted to the F.B.I that there existed a, “…strong possibility that his daughter did in fact take the artwork without his permission and sell it.”  Faced with Joe's withdrawal, the F.B.I. duly closed off their investigation, and Joe, presumably, made some money from the deal.

Several questions still remain though, first and foremost; who stole the artwork?  Towards the end even Joe Simon clearly had enough cause to believe that his own daughter might have been the culprit as he admitted as much to the F.B.I, but this might have been an admission of a man who wasn't up to facing yet another legal battle, as he was about to launch another copyright/ownership claim for Captain America.  Despite the legalities of the case it remains a fact that at the beginning of the investigation Joe Simon was extremely adamant that the art in question had never been returned to him by DC Comics.  There is also the changing stories of how the art ended up on the open market, first the story that the art was gifted by Joe to a person he claimed he never met, then the art was sold by Joe's daughter to a former boss, who may, or may not have harassed her in the workplace.  Also, who sold the art and where is that art today?  Although the F.B.I have redacted their files, as so not to identify anyone still possibly living, there are more than enough clues for those in the know to identify both the graphic artist and the dealer who threatened to instigate legal action to prevent Joe from getting his hands on his own art.  Naturally there’ll be those who’ll justify the actions of both the graphic design artist and the dealer, but, as I’ve pointed out, theft is theft, and it should make no difference if the pages came from either DC Comics or Joe Simon’s daughter – they were stolen from Joe Simon and should have been returned, not held to ransom, but, sadly, that’s always the way these things go when there’s money involved.   

Read the documentation and then draw your own conclusions.











































And neither knew, that down the track, bothy would be screwed by those who called themselves 'fans'.

5 comments:

alxjhnsn said...

Great stuff, Dan. Keep it coming.

Wish I knew enough to figure out the names, but I'll survive. :)

mr ed said...

It might be worth mentioning that a lot of that artwork is not by Joe Simon. All of The Green Team and Prez are by Jerry Grandenetti.

The other art theft story is equally interesting.
Not sure if you have seen, or have an interest in the information about the large scale theft of Ditko and Kirby art from the Marvel Offices in 1982.


First a Jim Shooter blog post. The post is brief, but Shooter gives a great deal more information when he get's involved in the comments thread.
http://www.jimshooter.com/2011/03/mystery-of-missing-box-of-marvel.html

Second an excerpt from Greg Theakston's book JACK MAGIC.
http://gregtheakstonteasemag.blogspot.com/2011/06/jack-magic-v2-pt2.html

Third TCJ article where Irene Vartanoff and Theakston are extensively quoted.
http://www.tcj.com/archive-viewer-issue-105/?pid=8471
http://www.tcj.com/archive-viewer-issue-105/?pid=8472
http://www.tcj.com/archive-viewer-issue-105/?pid=8473
http://www.tcj.com/archive-viewer-issue-105/?pid=8474
http://www.tcj.com/archive-viewer-issue-105/?pid=8475
http://www.tcj.com/archive-viewer-issue-105/?pid=8477

TCJ's Aug. 1984 article
http://www.tcj.com/archive-viewer-issue-92/?pid=7184
adds quite a bit to the Theakston blog article.
http://gregtheakstonteasemag.blogspot.com/2011/06/jack-magic-v2-pt2.html
The theft is placed in late June rather than July, and the comic book convention where large quantities of Ditko and Kirby art showed up as a direct result of the theft is identified as the 1982 New York City Creation Con held over the July 4th weekend.
The article also quote art dealer Tony Dispoto, "Shooter had it (the art) moved to the back of the snackroom, everybody had free access to the snackroom, and it was less the twelve feet from the freight elevator. I don't know why they didn't think of locking up Spider-Man 1 through 15. Those are the stories that were stolen, now they're on the market."

Daniel Best said...

I covered the Marvel theft a while ago when I was covering Jack Kirby's missing art - it annoyed and upset Jim Shooter to the point where he posted a few, shall we say nasty, comments on this blog and on his. I never accused him of taking art, but he feels that I did - such is life.

And yes, a lot of the art that Joe Simon was claiming wasn't drawn by him at all...curious...

OldMarvelGuy said...

I was at Marvel when the art was stolen. Frankly, nobody really thought about the art being stolen because the only people who knew it was there were staff members. We trusted our employees. I would like to add that a huge number of Marvel pages were stolen from the warehouse in Brooklyn, which had to have been an inside job. Many more pages were lost in floods. The warehouse was near the East River. It's very popular for a fan faction to believe that mean, evil companies are cheating artists, but the facts are that nasty people will try to make money any way they can.

Daniel Best said...

OldMarvelGuy - I'd love to explore this in a lot more detail with you, if possible. If you're keen then fire me down an email at snoopy967@gmail.com - and fret not, I never reveal names of my sources if those sources wish to remain anonymous.