A conclusion to Rosenbach vs. Sendak estate lawsuit - or just a pause?

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Author and Illustrator Maurice Sendak, stands with a character from his book "Where the Wild Things Are."

A Connecticut judge has issued a split, if heavily weighted, decision in the lawsuit that the Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia filed against the Maurice Sendak estate and foundation.

The will of the famed author and illustrator, who died in 2012, left instructions that his rare books, property, and other items be divided among various institutions and individuals. But the fate of hundreds of titles in Sendak’s own rare-book collection has been in dispute since the 2014 lawsuit.

In a decision dated Oct. 25 that was very much in favor of the Sendak estate, Northern Fairfield County Probate Court Judge Joseph A. Egan Jr. ordered that 252 of the rare books will go to the Sendak estate, and 88 to the Rosenbach.

Significantly, Egan ruled that two of the most valuable works – William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience – should be awarded to the Sendak estate. The two items are believed to be worth millions, the Rosenbach has said in court filings.

Lawyers for the Sendak estate and foundation said Tuesday that although  they were pleased with the decision, they had not decided whether to file an appeal.

“Judge Egan is a dedicated and experienced judge who listened to the evidence, and the decision he came down with, it doesn’t mean we think it is entirely correct – 252 out of 340, so I guess we lost on those,” said Jeffrey T. Golenbock, a lawyer for the Sendak estate. “We are hopeful this could be the end [of the dispute], and the foundation can go ahead with its mission of perpetuating the legacy of Maurice Sendak.”

The Rosenbach’s lawyer said Wednesday  no decision had been made on an appeal. “We are studying it,” said Brian P. Flaherty. “We are disappointed by some of the results, pleased with some of the results, and we are trying to decide what to do.”

Of the 800 or so rare books originally in dispute, many have been awarded to the Rosenbach, including, over the  summer, a group of about 155 books, comprising  important titles by Beatrix Potter, that the Sendak estate had originally contended were not rightly destined for the Rosenbach, as per Sendak’s will.

Lawyer Donald A. Hamburg said that Egan’s most recent decision also rejected the Rosenbach’s claim that the Sendak executors should be removed, and that it rejected the assertion that they were tarnished by conflict of interest and acted out of self-interest.

Hamburg, a partner with the New York firm  Golenbock Eiseman Assor Bell & Peskoe, is one of three executors of Sendak’s estate and one of six members of the board of directors of the Maurice Sendak Foundation. The foundation plans to open a facility of its own highlighting the works and legacy of its namesake, but exact plans remain unclear.

The ruling does not involve any of the original illustrations, manuscripts, or ephemera  Sendak himself created that accumulated in residence at the Rosenbach over more than four decades. Those 10,000 or so items were not in dispute, and the Sendak Foundation took them back from the Rosenbach in 2014.

In his will, Sendak stated his wish that the Rosenbach receive “all of my rare-edition books” – language that set off the dispute.

The Rosenbach argued that there was no distinction between the terms rare books and rare-edition books, but the court agreed with the Sendak estate’s argument that there was a difference, and that the difference mattered.

The court concluded in its ruling that to Sendak the word edition "had to have some significance and should not be ignored by the court.”

Two expert witnesses were called – Daniel Traister, a retired curator for Penn’s Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts; and San Francisco antiquarian book dealer John Windle. “Mr. Traister opined all of the items on the disputed list were rare-edition books,” the decision stated. “Mr. Windle countered that some of the items were not rare, some were not editions, some were not books, or, in some cases, a combination of the above.”

The court then reviewed each item to determine whether it was a book, whether  it was rare, and whether it was an edition book. “To determine the above, the court [took] into account its own observations and [gave] the weight it sees fit to the expert testimony that was received at the hearing.”

Judge Egan’s decision does not explain his criteria for distinguishing between a rare-edition book and a rare book. (Although book-printing conventions vary widely, first editions are generally the first printing of a book, and often the most prized by collectors; later editions may contain corrections or changes in the text, format, or illustrations used.)

Sendak's will also called for the Sendak Foundation and the Rosenbach to work out a continuation of exhibitions that started at the Rosenbach in 1969 and totaled more than 70 shows through 2014.

The author-illustrator began placing items on deposit at the museum and library at 2008-10 Delancey Place in the late 1960s. A formal agreement gave Sendak the right to recall them at any point with five days’ notice, but he never did so. The Rosenbach largely developed its public face around its identity with Sendak.

But after his death, his estate exercised its right and recalled the 10,000 or so items, or about 98 percent of Sendak materials the Rosenbach had. (The other two percent are Sendak items the museum owned and still owns.)

As for the possibility of loans from the Sendak Foundation that would be part of any future shows at the Rosenbach, Golenbock said: “The foundation doesn’t have an obligation to do it. However, it is the foundation’s position that it is willing to discuss the terms and conditions of continued display of Sendak artwork.”

The Rosenbach’s Flaherty said that, in fact, Sendak’s will does oblige the two groups to work together. “We don’t think that is a thoughtful or good-faith carrying out of Mr. Sendak’s wishes or will.”

“It is my wish that the Maurice Sendak Foundation Inc.,” Sendak wrote in his will, “make arrangement with the Rosenbach Museum and Library for the display of [all of the works of art created by me for my books] upon such terms and conditions and at such times as shall be determined by the Maurice Sendak Foundation in consultation with the Rosenbach Museum and Library.”

The foundation has said it has plans of its own to open a Sendak center in Connecticut, though specifics remain vague. Hamburg declined to say where it might be, when it would open, or how much of it would be geared toward the scholar as opposed to the general-interest visitor. “I can only tell you that there are ongoing confidential discussions on this subject with a major institution in Connecticut,” he said.