November 11, 2014

Rosenbach Museum sues Maurice Sendak’s estate for hogging the late author’s rare books


They're somewhere in a climate controlled warehouse, presumably.

The Wild Things are somewhere in a climate controlled warehouse, presumably.

It was a sad day for lovers of children’s literature when Maurice Sendak died in 2012. Sendak left a massive collection behind, to be divided by his estate and the Rosenbach Museum and Library of Philadelphia. The collection includes books (his own and others), papers, artwork, and other ephemera; Sendak and the Rosenbach enjoyed a a fruitful decades-long relationship during his lifetime, and the Museum has displayed parts of his collection over 70 times. However, the Museum has recently filed suit against Sendak’s estate, claiming that the will’s terms are not being met and that the estate plans to abscond with Sendak’s rare book collection.

The Inquirer reported the details of the suit. The Museum claims that certain books in the collection are being withheld, and that the estate’s reasoning for doing so is spurious at best:

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.”

The Estate still technically owns the 10,000 pieces that the Museum once exhibited, and recently announced they would be relocating the collection to an as-yet-unbuilt museum in Sendak’s Connecticut hometown. However, Sendak’s will stated that the Museum and estate should negotiate a deal to continue displaying items at the Rosenbach, and the Museum alleges that the Estate has no desire to follow Sendak’s wishes. In their view, the estate is trying to pull a combo power move/fast one by shoring up their control of the collection and possibly making a tidy profit on the side.

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.

The Museum seeks a court order, barring the estate from selling or disposing of any elements of the collection until the disputed items’ ownership is settled and a full inventory of the collection is made.

It’s always particularly sad to watch beneficiaries get into probate disputes, and that the deceased is a internationally beloved children’s book author makes this even sadder. The idea of Sendak’s and the Rosenbach Museum’s relationship could be reduced to a judicial ruling is an unsettling one, but clearly both entities in the suit stand to benefit financially from the collection. So not to get all Helen Lovejoy, but let’s think of the children.

Specifically, children related to me. My baby nephew is going to be growing up in Philadelphia, and for his and my sister’s sake I don’t want access to Sendak’s preferred showroom requiring a trip to Fairfield County. That’s a very long car ride for, and with, a small child.

Clearly this isn’t just about my nephew, no matter how much I and the Rosenbach would like it to be (best court strategy ever: “Objection, making an adorable baby sad!”) Sendak’s work was brilliant and therefore subject to challenges in his lifetime, because it was weird and scary and sometimes had naked kids in it. But in death, he’s been (rightfully) lionized. Sendak is canon, his work and collection of others’ work has vital cultural importance to children and former children, and that’s why Sendak determined that at least some of it should stay where it’s always been.

Lord knows Philadelphia isn’t a stranger to controversy surrounding where important art gets put – but for the sake of Philadelphia’s many inner and actual children, especially the ones that share my DNA, let’s hope both parties resolve this soon.


Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.