Battle for Rockwell's homespun legacy

Click to follow

The simplest thing you can say about the feud tearing apart the family of the late Kenneth Stuart is that it is not the sort of homely, sentimental scene that might have appeared in the paintings of Norman Rockwell.

Yet more than a quarter of a century after the iconic painter's death, Rockwell's paintings have caused a seething row to besiege Mr Stuart's family.

Kenneth Stuart was the art director of the Saturday Evening Post, a now defunct US current affairs magazine. Aged just 22, Rockwell first contributed a cover for the magazine in 1916 and, under the direction of Mr Stuart, he continued to work for the publication until 1963.

In 1961, when he published a retrospective, he wrote in Mr Stuart's copy of the album of paintings: "Everything I am, everything I have ever done, everything I hope to be, I owe to Ken." Yet according to a report The New York Times, it appears the relationship that Mr Stuart and the artist developed has had unforeseen consequences that are being played out long after both died.

Mr Stuart's three sons - Ken, William and Jonathan - are engaged in a bitter fight over more than a dozen of Rockwell's best-known works, including The Gossips, Walking to Church and Saying Grace. When Mr Stuart died in 1993 he left the paintings, worth millions of dollars, and the rest of his otherwise modest estate in equal shares to his three sons.

But his two youngest, William and Jonathan, have for more than a decade been in a legal battle with the eldest, with the two men claiming their elder brother forced their ailing father to sign papers allowing him executive control of the fortune.

They further claim that Ken Stuart has used estate assets to fund a fast-spending lifestyle, including alimony for his first wife, a $5,000 (£2,550) Rolex watch for the woman who is soon to become his second wife, $16,000 on a time-share property in New Orleans and $44,500 on a cello for his daughter.

"[I find] the juxtaposition of Rockwell's all-American homey values and this family dispute interesting," said John Dempsey, an accountant hired by William and Jonathan. "It's not supposed to happen in Rockwell's world."

Ken Stuart told the newspaper his two brothers had done well out of the estate. He said that bad record keeping was behind some of the outstanding issues.

But he added: "The real nucleus of this problem is that I am the favourite of both my parents. My brothers don't like it and couldn't do anything about it when my dad was alive so this is what they did after he died."

In 2002, a judge granted the younger brothers a temporary injunction to stop their brother's spending. Two years later, the judge ordered Ken Stuart to pay $2.3m back to the estate describing how he had helped himself to his brothers' share of the estate as "staggering".

But in 2005 Ken Stuart filed for bankruptcy, freezing his brothers' ability to receive the money. Court records show he continues to lead a high-spending lifestyle and inhabits a $2.7m waterfront home in Connecticut that his fiancée bought in October. "It's totally beyond our comprehension," said Jonathan Stuart.

Ironically, the longer the feud continues, the wealthier the three brothers arebecoming. Though critics claim his work was kitsch, Rockwell's paintings are hugely popular and have increased in value. Last month Sotheby's auctioned Breaking Home Ties for $15.4m. The painting is the second most popular Rockwell work. The first is Saying Grace, the artist's all-American masterpiece that is in the possession of the all-American Stuart family.