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Lawsuit Over Maurice Sendak’s Book Collection

Museum, executors battle over the late writer’s rare book collection

Stephanie Butnick
November 14, 2014
Maurice Sendak with a character from his book, 'Where the Wild Things Are,' on January 11, 2002. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Maurice Sendak with a character from his book, 'Where the Wild Things Are,' on January 11, 2002. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Two and a half years after Maurice Sendak’s death, perhaps the most significant part of the beloved children’s author’s estate—his rare book collection—remains the subject of an ugly legal battle. The Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia this week filed a lawsuit against the executors of Sendak’s estate as well as the Maurice Sendak Foundation over the multi-million dollar collection, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

Sendak’s will reportedly dictated that not only should his works remain on display at the Rosenbach museum, the institution, which had put on more than 70 shows featuring his literary and artistic creations and to which he had become a major donor, should get a portion of his book collection as well. The fine print, though, required the museum and his estate negotiate the details of the arrangement.

The Inquirer reports:

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.”

It’s a sad situation, particularly given Sendak’s vociferous criticism of the book banning initiatives that have long targeted his work. To see his own estate keeping his unimaginably valuable (creatively, not just financially) collection of rare books so far from fans and book lovers alike would probably make Sendak very sad.

The impetus for the lawsuit is a planned January auction at Christie’s, organized by the writer’s estate, which the museum worries will include items from the rare book collection. The estate has denied the claim.

It’s a drama that stinks of the mean grown-up world, where magic and wonder are replaced by agendas and bottom lines.

Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.