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Legal Dispute Over Maurice Sendak’s Epic Book Collection Gets Wild

A legal rumpus has concluded—but have concerns about the author’s legacy only just begun?

A legal rumpus threw the author's epic book collection into question. (University of Southern Mississippi/Maurice Sendak)
smithsonian.com

The name “Maurice Sendak” brings to mind a puckish writer and illustrator known for stirring up a "wild rumpus." But it turns out that the late author, who is most famous for his children’s classic Where the Wild Things Are, didn’t just create books: He collected them. As Randy Kennedy reports for The New York Times, the author’s epic book assemblage recently created a little mayhem of its own—and resulted in a legal feud between the author’s estate and a Philadelphia museum.

A Connecticut probate court judge recently awarded Sendak’s estate the bulk of his book collection, much of which has been on loan to Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum and Library for years, reports Kennedy. The dispute has been raging since 2014, when the Rosenbach sued Maurice Sendak’s executors with a claim that they had not bequeathed his large book collection to the Rosenbach in accordance with Sendak’s wishes.

As Peter Dobrin reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Sendak, who died in 2012, had a longstanding relationship with the Rosenbach. The library grew out of the collections of two book-collecting brothers who specialized in rare items. Among other things, the Rosenbach hosts James Joyce’s manuscript of Ulysses and Bram Stoker’s notes for Dracula, and Sendak began placing his work there in the 1960s. Later, he served as a board member and, as Dobrin reports, the museum put on over 70 shows of Sendak’s iconic art over the years. However, Sendak did not bequeath the more than 10,000 personal works he lent to the Rosenbach—instead, he left them to his foundation when he died for storage in a to-be-built museum bearing his name.

But Sendak didn’t leave the Rosenbach completely in the dust. His will apparently included a clause leaving “rare edition” books to the Rosenbach, writes Kennedy, a vague categorization that sparked a legal battle when the Sendak Foundation tried to retrieve Sendak’s things. The author’s treasures include books by Peter Rabbit author Beatrix Potter and illuminated manuscripts by William Blake, but the Sendak estate argued in court that the Potter books were children’s books, not rare books, and that the Blake manuscripts are not books at all.

Now, after years of bickering, the probate court ordered that most of the books be returned to the estate. As Kennedy reports, 88 of the contested books, including the Potter books, will stay at the Rosenbach, while 252 will go to the foundation and the estate. But what of the museum? Earlier this year, Kennedy reported along with Alison Leigh Cowan that though a museum is slated for Ridgefield, Connecticut, where the author lived for decades, it’s not clear whether it will be open to the general public or where the museum will be located.

Will Sendak’s legacy be hidden behind closed doors? Will his rare books ever be displayed to the public? Only time will tell. Until then, his fans still have one comfort—the iconic children’s books he left behind. And if the legal battle is any indication, the author’s afterlife might be just as wild as the world Max discovers in his bedroom.

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