Art Theft at Bel-Air Mansion: Police Say Butler Did It

Times Staff Writer

When Elizabeth Keck strolled through the card room of her luxurious Bel-Air mansion recently, she noticed something dramatically amiss with a 19th-Century European painting hanging in the corner.

The oil, “I Fria Luften,” had been removed from its frame and replaced with a high-quality photograph of the original canvas she had purchased for more than $80,000 in 1982, Keck told police last month.

After a two-week international investigation that drew on the resources of Interpol, authorities concluded that the butler, Rune Gunnar Donell, did it.


They have since charged Donell, who worked for Keck for 15 years, with stealing the painting by the Swedish-born Anders Zorn and a second work, “Fete Gallante,” by a French artist. Keck, who serves as a Museum of Contemporary Art trustee and whose horse Ferdinand won the 1986 Kentucky Derby, is the estranged wife of retired oilman Howard B. Keck, billed as one of the nation’s wealthiest citizens.

Faces Two Theft Counts

Donell, a 61-year-old Swedish national, is being held on $500,000 bail and faces a preliminary hearing on two counts of grand theft Nov. 9 before Los Angeles Municipal Judge Alban I. Niles.

Authorities say Donell took the 1888 Impressionist work, of a nude woman with a child, to Sweden last March--more than five months before it was reported missing--where he duly registered it with customs officials. The painting was subsequently sold to a Stockholm firm at an auction in April. The purchase price, more than $500,000, was paid to Donell, authorities said.

In search warrant papers filed in court last week, police said they found two 2-foot-by-3-foot photographic blowups of the Zorn painting in a motor home registered to Donell stored in Redondo Beach.

But despite the police findings, Donell’s attorney, Donald C. Randolph, said this week: “My client aggressively asserts his innocence.”

“It’s just too easy to say that the butler did it,” Randolph declared. “No one who is actually effectuating a theft would act as openly as the police allege my client has. . . . Indeed, he wasn’t committing a crime.”

Randolph, who last week was given until November by Niles to conduct further investigation, said Tuesday that he was not yet prepared to reveal Donell’s specific defenses.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Montagna, who is prosecuting Donell, declined comment on Randolph’s contentions.

“I don’t want to be quoted in connection with the case,” Montagna said, “because I want to preserve the Kecks’ privacy.”

Montagna, head deputy of the district attorney’s career criminal unit, did however acknowledge that Donell apparently has no previous criminal record. Montagna added that despite his job title, he has been handling the case because he had worked with the Los Angeles police officer who investigated the theft.

That officer, William Martin, took issue Wednesday with Randolph’s assertions that Donell did not steal the painting.

“There’s no more to it as far as any evidence we’ve had,” said Martin, a veteran theft investigator. “As far as we’re concerned, all the evidence is the person we put in jail is the person who committed the crime. We know he took the painting out of the country and sold it at auction. He didn’t make any explanation to us. We gave him an opportunity to explain it and he chose not to.”

Although Donell was arrested Sept. 11 at his West Los Angeles residence and the theft was discovered more than two weeks before that, authorities never issued a public statement about the case.

“We really were hoping we wouldn’t get any publicity on this at all,” Martin said Wednesday. “The Keck famiy is really a private family. . . . They can do without the publicity.”

Keck, 65, an artist herself who paints abstract and Impressionist works, declined comment concerning the case through a spokesman Wednesday.

Keck, according to court papers, has told police that the last time she said that she was sure the painting rather than the photo was in the frame was in early 1987. Donell, who she said had often admired the painting and said it would bring a high price in Sweden, had quit her employ about three months before she discovered the painting missing, Keck informed the police.

According to Martin, authorities are seeking to recover both the French painting and the Zorn oil, which an Interpol report states was purchased in good faith by the Consolidator AB firm in Stockholm.

The painting was one of a multitude of art objects in the 17th-Century stone mansion replica built by Keck and her husband. Among the other treasures in the king-sized French chateau are a nearly priceless collection of French furniture from the 17th and 18th centuries.

The criminal complaint against Donell, specifically charging that the paintings were the property of Elizabeth Keck, does not mention her husband, the former chairman of Superior Oil Co. who has been included in recent Forbes magazine lists of the 400 richest Americans. He also heads the W. M. Keck Foundation, which has financed a 400-inch Caltech telescope now under construction in Hawaii.

Elizabeth Keck filed for divorce from her husband last December.

Attorney John A. Ruskey, who represents Howard Keck in the pending divorce petition, said Wednesday that “it would be more accurate to say (the painting) was stolen from (both of) the Kecks.”

Times staff writer Roxane Arnold contributed to this article.