By ALAINE GRIFFIN, Courant Staff Writer
STOCKBRIDGE, Mass. -- Marge Blair, a guide at the museum here that houses the largest collection of Norman Rockwell's original works, points tourists toward a painting of a teen-age girl in a plaid skirt and scuffed saddle shoes reading The Saturday Evening Post.
The painting, a gift Rockwell gave his friend Walt Disney one Christmas, is now part of the permanent collection at the museum, where Blair one recent afternoon celebrated its return.
"A few years ago, Walt Disney's daughter gave it back to us so we can all enjoy it today," Blair said during a guided tour of the work of one of America's most beloved illustrators.
But another painting's place on a wall nearby is not so certain, in part because its story does not share such goodwill. And though Blair stops her tour at this painting so admirers can observe its detail, she doesn't tell them that "Walking to Church," an April 3, 1953, Post cover of a Bible-toting family heading to Sunday morning services, could soon end up above the mantelpiece of a wealthy buyer, far from the eyes of the thousands who come to the museum each year.
Museum officials are keeping a close eye on an application filed last month in a probate court in Connecticut requesting the sale of "Walking to Church" and five other Rockwell paintings and sketches, including one of his portraits of President Eisenhower and the well-known "Gossips" and "Saying Grace." pictured bottom.
For more than a decade, the works have been on loan to the Norman Rockwell Museum, which opens its doors annually to about 160,000 visitors who come to view the wholesome, slice-of-life images Rockwell is known for creating. The museum, about 75 miles from Hartford, includes more than 570 paintings and drawings and an archive of more than 100,000 photographs, letters and other Rockwell items.
Kenneth Jr., 65, of Norwalk, Stuart's oldest son and named executor of his father's estate, wants to sell the paintings, claiming "market conditions are such that" the paintings "are likely to receive a favorable price," according to his application filed Feb. 5 in Norwalk Probate Court.
But William Stuart, 63, of Massachusetts and his younger brother, Jonathan Stuart, 61, of New York, who have accused their brother of using the estate assets to maintain "a lifestyle he was unable to afford before he became executor," object to the sale of the paintings. They cite a pending application of their own that seeks to have him removed as executor, according to Norwalk probate records.
The fight among the Stuart brothers has raised questions about how long the paintings will be in the public domain. Potential new owners for "Walking to Church," "Gossips" and "Saying Grace" - the latter once voted the most popular Saturday Evening Post cover by readers - may not choose to keep the paintings at the Rockwell museum, where they have been on loan since 1994.
"These works are some of Norman Rockwell's best-known images," said Stephanie Plunkett, the museum's chief curator. "We're fortunate to have had the opportunity to have them at the museum for so long, so this is a big issue for us. Would we love to have the paintings here? Absolutely. Having the paintings on loan here has been a great advantage for the public because they've had the opportunity to view Rockwell's master works in their original form. But since it's under the jurisdiction of the courts, we don't know how it's going to turn out."
The case has been kept in limbo by Kenneth Jr.'s October 2005 bankruptcy filing, a 2002 injunction barring him from touching the estate's assets and acting as executor and a legal fight the brothers recently won against the Post's parent company, Curtis Publishing, over ownership of the paintings.
But that could change Tuesday in a bankruptcy courtroom in Bridgeport, where Wright, one of Kenneth Jr.'s lawyers, said he will agree to let the probate court matters proceed.
"We're trying to move forward with this," Wright said. "We want to sell the paintings."
Kenneth Jr. filed for bankruptcy 15 months after Superior Court Judge Taggart D. Adams ruled in June 2004 that the son had exercised undue influence over his father in acquiring the estate's assets and had breached his fiduciary duties. Adams said Kenneth Jr. was liable for statutory theft and unjust enrichment and ordered him to pay nearly $2.4 million to the estate.
Kenneth Jr. is appealing Adams' ruling in the state's Appellate Court.
In his decision, Adams considered allegations by the brothers that when their father was suffering from dementia, Kenneth Jr. convinced him to put his assets - including the Rockwell works - into a family limited partnership. The partnership, in which Kenneth Jr. would serve as general partner, was a way to decrease estate taxes, the records say.
The brothers said Kenneth Jr. used estate funds to pay for his daughter's BMW and college tuition and for alimony to his ex-wife, according to court records. Kenneth Jr. "testified candidly that certain funds in the trust were used to pay his personal expenses," but claimed he was owed commissions for running the partnership, Adams wrote in his decision,.
In his ruling, Adams calls the 14-year dispute over the estate a "divisive family saga." There were lengthy discovery disputes, "documentary evidence in excess of 20,000 pages" and an eight-week trial in the fall of 2003. A special master was also assigned to take possession of "voluminous partnership files and to oversee the partnership affairs," according to Adams' ruling.
Through their attorney, Sandra Akoury, both Jonathan Stuart and William Stuart declined to be interviewed for this story. Kenneth Stuart Jr. did not return a call for comment.
Wright said selling the paintings "is the only way" Kenneth Jr. can satisfy the nearly $2.4 million judgment against his client. Wright said in the current market, "Saying Grace," which shows a grandmother and grandson with bowed heads praying before their meal in a crowded restaurant, could sell for between $20 million and $25 million.
Last November, the Rockwell painting "Lincoln the Railsplitter," which shows a young Abraham Lincoln, was sold at auction for $1.6 million to the Butler Institute of American Art in Ohio. That same month, the more well-known "Breaking Home Ties" by Rockwell sold for $15.4 million at auction, more than double its estimated price of $4 million to $6 million, according to a Sotheby's auction house release.
With sale numbers that high, Plunkett said, it would be difficult for the museum to buy paintings from the Stuart collection if they ended up for sale.
"We unfortunately would not be in a position necessarily to bid on something in the range of what we've been seeing for Norman Rockwell's iconic works," Plunkett said. "But oftentimes, people are generous and when they purchase art, they consider putting it out for display. We're always hoping people think of us as a repository for Rockwell's work."
Plunkett said museum officials were thrilled in 1999 when they learned Disney's daughter wanted to return Rockwell's gift to her father. Those at the Butler Institute felt the same way when the museum was able to purchase "Lincoln the Railsplitter." For years, it hung in the home of Texas billionaire and onetime presidential candidate H. Ross Perot. Once the museum had the painting, it held an unveiling party for the first public showing in many years.
"I think it's wonderful that our collection is available to the public every day, especially to people who are scholars," said Kathy Earnhart, the Butler Institute's director of public relations. The museum, which showcases the works of such American artists as Mary Cassatt and Edward Hopper, had searched for a Rockwell to add to their collection. But like the Rockwell museum's bank account, the Butler's checkbook cannot always compete with the money a wealthy private bidder can spend.
"It is difficult for us because the prices are so exorbitant," Earnhart said.
But it can be done, said Patricia Shippee, a fine art appraiser and consultant in Connecticut and New York City. Shippee pointed to the recent fight two Philadelphia museums waged to keep American artist Thomas Eakins' "The Gross Clinic" in that city.
When Thomas Jefferson University announced it was selling the painting for $68 million to a partnership of Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, arts supporters in Philadelphia held a fundraising drive to keep it from being sold.
In the end, the painting, considered Eakins' masterpiece, was purchased jointly by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Both will exhibit the painting.
"It depends on how much the museum wants it," Shippee said. "It could be that there will be enough people who will care about the Rockwell museum to keep the paintings there."
Rockwell, himself, thought it was important to keep his works in the public domain, Plunkett said.
When he learned a museum with his work was going to be opened, Rockwell donated a number of his paintings in trust to the museum and went searching for paintings he had given away or sold so they could be displayed.
The museum is getting ready to host a series of traveling exhibitions for people who are unable to get to Stockbridge, Rockwell's home during the later years of his life.
"I do believe that Norman Rockwell realized it was important to gather a significant collection of his work for the public," Plunkett said. And one way Rockwell was able to do this was by getting his work on the cover of the Post, she said.
"Rockwell once called the magazine the greatest show window in America for an illustrator," Plunkett said. "The ability for his work to be seen by the masses was extremely important to him. He believed he worked for the public."