Maurice Sendak (1928-2012) illustrated over 150 books, mostly for children, during his nationally-acclaimed career. In 2016, Donald A. Hamburg, a Trusts and Estates Partner of the firm, served as both an executor of the Maurice Sendak Estate and a Board member of The Maurice Sendak Foundation. Sendak’s Will included a provision bequeathing certain “rare edition books” to the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia. The Rosenbach claimed that 340 works of art should have been included in the bequest. The Estate believed that the claimed works did not fall under the Rosenbach’s bequest and should remain with the Estate, to be housed in a museum in accordance with Sendak’s wishes in the Will. Notably, among the works at issue were two famous works by the 18th century British author/illustrator, William Blake, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. These two items are extremely rare and of very significant value.
The Rosenbach filed suit in Connecticut Probate Court, and the Executors of the Estate and the Foundation (the “Respondents”) engaged GEABP attorneys Jeffrey T. Golenbock and Elizabeth C. Conway to represent the Respondents in the litigation, which focused on the interpretation of Sendak’s Will and in particular the use of the language “rare edition books”. The Estate argued that the Court must give meaning to all contract terms and cannot ignore the word “edition” from the phrase “rare edition book.” As such, the Estate argued each of the 340 claimed works did not fall into the bequest for any number of reasons: it was not a book, was not rare, and/or was not an “edition”, but rather a one-of-a-kind work of art that does not have any “editions”, such as Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. In connection with its defense, GEABP engaged a rare book expert to opine on all 340 works of art.
The three-day trial, Rosenback v. Sendak, was held in the Northern Fairfield County Connecticut Probate Court, during which both sides provided fact and expert testimony concerning the interpretation of the Will, the meaning of “rare edition books”, and how the 340 items fit (or did not fit) within that definition. Following trial, the court agreed with the arguments made by GEABP on behalf of the Respondents, that you cannot ignore the word “edition” in the bequest of “rare edition books” and the court must apply meaning to that phrase. The court also agreed that following GEABP’s interpretation of the Will and based on the expert testimony provided, of the 340 items in issue, only 88 were to go to the Rosenbach and that 252 were to be retained by the Estate. Most notably, neither of the Blakes was included in the bequest to the Rosenbach, and thus would be left to the Foundation.