Rosenbach sues Sendak Foundation over rare books

Maurice Sendak in 2007.

The executors of Maurice Sendak's will have not complied with his wishes to bequeath his multimillion-dollar rare-book collection to the Rosenbach Museum and Library and for the revered author and illustrator's work to continue to be displayed at the Rosenbach.

So claims a lawsuit filed last week in northern Fairfield County, Conn., in which the Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia asks the state's probate court to compel individuals who overlap as executors of the estate and officers of the Maurice Sendak Foundation to carry out Sendak's wishes.

His will directed his executors and the Rosenbach to negotiate certain aspects of the will, but 21/2 years after his death, talks have failed to reach a successful conclusion.

"It is apparent that the foundation and executors have no intention of abiding by the provisions of the will and trust regarding the consultation of the Rosenbach," the complaint states.

One of its two Center City buildings on Delancey Place at 20th Street is named for the creator of Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, and Chicken Soup With Rice. Sendak's relationship with the quirky Rosenbach dates to the 1960s, when he began placing his work on deposit there. He was named a board member in 1973, honorary president in 2003, and became a major donor. The Rosenbach mounted more than 70 Sendak shows between 1969 and 2014, including one that closed the day before it filed the suit.

The Sendak estate plans a Christie's auction on Jan. 21, and though no catalog has been issued, the sale title - "The World of Maurice Sendak: Artist, Author, Connoisseur" - leads the Rosenbach to believe some of the items in question are part of the sale. A Christie's spokeswoman said the items to be auctioned were still being cataloged.

Though the suit says the estate has said none of the items the Rosenbach claims would be auctioned, the museum has sought a court order barring the executors from transferring, disposing, or distributing any books until the dispute is resolved. It also would provide for delivery to the Rosenbach of the disputed items and any other rare books, require an accounting of the estate's full holdings, and compel the Sendak Foundation to consult with the Rosenbach on the continued display of Sendak items in Philadelphia.

Lawyers and officials from both sides either declined to comment or did not return calls. The suit names as respondents trustees Donald A. Hamburg, Lynn Caponera, and John Vitale, as well as other Maurice Sendak Foundation board members.

According to the suit, the Sendak trustees have turned over fewer than half the hundreds of items in Sendak's rare-book collection. In fact, the estate has told the Rosenbach it had no intention of transferring ownership of several extremely valuable volumes by Peter Rabbit author Beatrix Potter because they are children's books, not rare books, the suit states. The Rosenbach calls that reasoning not only faulty but rife with irony: Sendak argued that divisions between adult and children's literature were invalid - in his work as well as that of others. He called Potter's works "the literary equivalent of the greatest English prose writers that have lived."

To claim Potter's works are not rare books because they are for children "either demonstrates that the executors are shockingly ignorant of Mr. Sendak's views or is just a bad-faith effort on the part of the executors to manufacture some basis" for claiming the books as property of the estate rather than the Rosenbach.

The estate also claims two illuminated books by William Blake, Songs of Experience and Songs of Innocence, are not rare books because one lacks a binding and the other has pages that do not correspond to another copy of the same title.

The Rosenbach suit responds: "The Blake books are just that - books. The executors' assertion that what are plainly books are not books is nothing less than an attempt to override Mr. Sendak's decision to give all of his rare-edition books to the Rosenbach. The Blake books are highly valued and the executors have advised the Rosenbach that they intend to sell the Blakes. If sold, they might be expected to sell for several million dollars, which funds the executors would prefer to go to the foundation."

The Rosenbach does not dispute that 10,000 books, manuscripts, illustrations, and other materials long on deposit at the museum and library are owned by Sendak's estate to support a proposed museum and study center in his Connecticut home. But his will directed the estate and Rosenbach to reach a deal whereby the museum would continue to display many items.

Such a deal, long expected, has not been reached.

"The executors and the foundation have stated they do not consider themselves bound to follow the directives of the will in that respect," the suit says. "Indeed, the estate and foundation are so intent on having nothing to do with the Rosenbach, notwithstanding Mr. Sendak's lifetime practices and his stated wishes, that they have already begun to remove the Sendak artwork from the Rosenbach."

But many of those items are being placed in a "third-party storage facility, where they will not be available to authors and scholars to study, let alone the general public," the suit says. Though the foundation has been extant many years, it has not as of the filing date disclosed plans for an opening.

Says the suit: "All of these steps are being taken in a self-interested effort to assert immediate control over the Sendak artwork and exclude others, even while the foundation is apparently not in a position to begin proper operation of the kind of museum Mr. Sendak envisioned."

It was his intent, the suit says, "to continue to have the Rosenbach play a role in the display of his works to the public, which Mr. Sendak considered to be an important part of preserving his legacy."