The painting, Rockwell's "Russian Schoolroom," was snatched during a late-night burglary at a gallery in Clayton, Mo., on June 25, 1973. The Oscar-winning filmmaker purchased the painting in 1989 from a legitimate dealer and didn't know it was stolen until last week, the FBI said in a statement.
Spielberg's staff alerted federal authorities, and an FBI agent and an art expert inspected the painting at one of Spielberg's offices and confirmed its authenticity Friday morning. Early FBI estimates put the painting's value at $700,000, officials said.
A message left with Spielberg's publicist was not immediately returned.
The oil-on-canvas painting shows children in a classroom with a bust of communist leader Vladimir Lenin. Spielberg is cooperating with the FBI and will retain possession of the Russian Schoolroom until its "disposition can be determined," the bureau said.
In 2004, the FBI's newly formed Art Crime Team initiated an investigation to recover the work.
Mary Ellen Shortland worked at the long-closed Clayton Art Gallery when the painting was stolen 34 years ago. She recalled Friday that the gallery was holding a Rockwell exhibit, mainly of lithographs, at the time. The gallery's parent company, Circle Fine Art in Chicago, arranged for the Rockwell original to be on hand to draw visitors to the show, she said.
Shortland said a Missouri client bought the painting for $25,000, but agreed to let it remain on display, as it had been advertised as part of the show. Just a few nights later, someone smashed the gallery's glass door and escaped with the painting.
"That was all they took. That's what they wanted, that painting," Shortland recalled.
The gallery refunded the client's money, and there was no sign of the work for years. Then in 1988, it was auctioned in New Orleans. "It sold for $70,400 and a 10 percent buyer's premium," Pero said.
Shortland recalled that she saw the painting again in an advertisement for a small New York gallery, since closed, about 15 years ago. She said she contacted Circle, but "Russian Schoolroom" was not recovered. Shortland, now the owner of Creative Art Gallery and Picture Framing, estimated that the painting could be worth "hundreds of thousands of dollars" today, if it is in excellent condition.
Rockwell's work often resonates with people because much of it captures moments from everyday life, such as a boy watching his father shave, family members saying grace over a Thanksgiving turkey or a young girl having a dress fitting.
The artist died at age 84 in 1978. While "Russian Schoolroom" appeared in Look magazine, the artist is best known for the covers he did for The Saturday Evening Post. More than 300 Rockwell creations appeared on the cover of the publication.