By Bernard Vaughan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - An aging comic book artist is racing against time to recover art he created depicting Superman and President John F. Kennedy for a comic book that was to be published the same month as Kennedy's assassination.
Earlier this week, Al Plastino, 91, asked a New York state court to order Heritage Auctions to name the person who hired the Dallas-based business to sell the original artwork, "Superman's Mission for President Kennedy," so he could seek its return.
Plastino believed the artwork was supposed to have been donated to the planned Kennedy Library in Boston 50 years ago, the same year Kennedy was assassinated, according to court documents.
Plastino was surprised to learn recently that it was scheduled for auction on Friday in Beverly Hills, California. Heritage Auctions has since pulled the artwork from this week's sale, said Heritage spokesman Noah Fleisher.
Plastino, of Shirley, New York, is among the most acclaimed and prolific Superman artists from the heyday of comics in the mid-20th Century, according to court papers.
Plastino wants the artwork returned to him so that it can be "displayed in its rightful place," at the Kennedy Library, and be "his public and lasting legacy to the interested public," the documents said.
"Due to Mr. Plastino's advanced age and ill-health, time is of the essence so that this issue may be resolved during his lifetime," the court papers said.
Neither Plastino nor the lawyer handling the case for free, Dale Cendali, a specialist in intellectual property with the law firm Kirkland & Ellis, were immediately available to comment on Thursday.
Heritage Auctions has declined to name the person who sought to include the work in this week's auction, called a consignor, unless the court orders it to do so, he said.
"Heritage policy is not to publicly discuss pending litigation," Fleisher said in a prepared statement. "I can tell you, though, that our consignor bought the artwork at a Sotheby's auction and we withdrew the artwork weeks ago as soon as we learned of the dispute and have returned the item to the consignor."
According to Plastino's court papers, the artwork depicts Superman and Kennedy as part of a promotion of the president's national physical fitness program.
National Comics was set to publish the comic book in November 1963, but held off after the president's assassination. It was published several weeks later at the request of President Lyndon B. Johnson, "as a tribute to his predecessor," according to an excerpt from the book's commemorative title page, which was included in the court papers.
Plastino thought the donation to the Kennedy Library had been made, but at a comic convention in New York this year he learned of the proposed auction, according to the documents.
(Reporting by Bernard Vaughan; Editing by Ted Botha, Barbara Goldberg and Maureen Bavdek)