Rosenbach continues feud with Sendak estate in court

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Maurice Sendak, author-illustrator of such children's classics as "Where the Wild Things Are," had more than 70 shows at Philadelphia's Rosenbach museum. He died in 2012 at age 83.

More than a year into the lawsuit it filed over Maurice Sendak's will, the Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia has asked a Connecticut judge to remove the executors of the author-illustrator's estate.

Motivated by "financial self-interest," Sendak's executors have refused to carry out his wish to leave millions of dollars' worth of books to the Rosenbach, the Philadelphia museum and library asserts in a motion filed in Northern Fairfield County Probate Court.

"They instead imagine themselves to have been invested with the power to pick and choose whether to follow his will or to implement instead a plan of their own for the disposition of his property," the Rosenbach says in the suit.

The Rosenbach once again asks the judge to compel the executors, who are also officers of the Maurice Sendak Foundation, to turn over hundreds of books, including rare and important ones by the poet-painter William Blake and Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter, and more than a hundred by German pop-up-book innovator Lothar Meggendorfer.

Lawyers for Sendak's executors counter that the Rosenbach lacks legal standing to request their removal, while characterizing the Rosenbach's move as an attempt to argue its case in public, using allegations of the executors' wrongdoing as a cudgel to get the Sendak executors to accede to its demands.

The Rosenbach and Sendak executors attempted to settle their differences out of court in January, and those talks failed, according to the Sendak executors.

Lawyers from both sides declined to comment after a Wednesday hearing.

At stake is more than money and rare books. Perhaps most critical for fans of the writer of Where the Wild Things Are and Chicken Soup With Rice is that the legal dispute has left in limbo the question of who will be the keeper of a substantial portion of the Sendak public profile.

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

Sendak, who lived in Ridgefield, Conn., died in 2012 at age 83.

He was deeply involved with the Rosenbach for decades, as a board member and major donor. Over time, Sendak deposited more than 10,000 of his own manuscripts, letters, first editions, and other original items at the Rosenbach. He left most of these pieces to the Sendak Foundation, and after his death the Rosenbach turned them over to the foundation. They now sit in storage, and it is not clear when or where they might be seen again - in Philadelphia, Connecticut, or elsewhere.

Executors contend they are not obligated to consult with the Rosenbach on the display of this artwork. Sendak indicated in his will a two-part desire: for his foundation and the Rosenbach to arrange for the continued display of the 10,000 items, and for the establishment of a museum devoted to his work to be housed in his longtime Connecticut home. He asked that the museum be open not only to scholars and students, but also the general public.

Just how public such a museum would be is not clear. Sendak executor Lynn Caponera, also a foundation board member, seemed to indicate a more limited interpretation of public access in a recent interview. "His intention was, someone would call up or make an appointment with me, and then two or three people at a time would come up and I'd show them his studio and then his archives, and that would be that," Caponera told the New York Times.

The Rosenbach's latest legal arguments come after a discovery process the museum says shows that the executors' conduct "has been even more clearly improper and intentional than [the Rosenbach] imagined" when it first filed its lawsuit. The motion repeats the assertion that the executors, because of their overlapping membership as foundation directors, have a built-in conflict of interest.

Among the Rosenbach's claims:

That the executors have "unilaterally and without any justification" decided not to turn over the books to the Rosenbach "motivated solely by the purpose of selling those very valuable books, including by breaking up the books into separate pages before sale to increase the gross sale price."

That the executors used a demand for immediate return of the 10,000 items "as leverage to induce" the Rosenbach to accept less than all the books to which it was entitled.

That the executors do not consider themselves obligated to consult with the Rosenbach about the future display of the artwork now in storage.

That they have taken "few if any steps" to establish a Sendak museum.

In his will, Sendak stated the wish that the Rosenbach receive "all of my rare edition books."

But the Sendak executors contend that the books in dispute are not rare books - in fact, that they are not even books in some cases - and therefore do not belong to the Rosenbach. The Potter books are children's books, not rare books, the Sendak directors say, and Blake's 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 has maintained that all are books, and bolsters that position in its latest filings by ascribing a motive to the Sendak executors:

"They have done so in order to sell these valuable books at auction to raise money to pursue other purposes they prefer over adherence to Mr. Sendak's directives, including to pay themselves executors' fees, legal fees, and fees for serving as directors of Mr. Sendak's foundation."

To support its claim, the Rosenbach provides a copy of an internal email from Christie's, which the executors had asked to auction off some of the books (the auction was canceled), in which a Christie's account manager says she has spoken with the executors. "They have made it clear that they would like to include as much property as possible in our sale, and limit the gifts to the Rosenbach," she writes.

In addition, lawyers for the Rosenbach cite pages and pages of evidence that the books it says are books are books - indeed, rare books. The Blakes, therefore, should be part of the bequest to the Rosenbach, they say.

Blake himself, they note, referred to his works as books. Says the motion: "One would think he would know."

pdobrin@phillynews.com
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