The New York Times has a front-page story today on a family squabble involving the estate of Kenneth Stuart, the longtime art director of The Saturday Evening Post and close friend of Norman Rockwell. The value of the estate primarily lies in three Rockwell paintings Stuart's sons "say are worth about $25 million." (A Rockwell painting sold at Sotheby's last month for $15.4 million.) In 2004 a Connecticut court ordered one of the sons, Ken Jr., to pay $2.3 million to the estate; he has since filed for bankruptcy protection.
Near the end, the story mentions that "the parties agree that Ken Jr. did perform one valuable service. When Curtis Publishing [which publishes The Saturday Evening Post] claimed in 2001 that the paintings belonged to the magazine and not to the brothers, Ken Jr. sued on behalf of the family partnership. In September, a federal judge said that Curtis had waited too long to cry foul, clearing the way for any future sale."
That decision, Stuart & Sons, L.P. v. Curtis Publishing Company, is at 456 F.Supp.2d 336 (D. Conn. 2006). The court noted that "since at least 1962, Stuart, Sr. held himself out, and was publicly recognized as the owner of the Paintings in numerous publications, including books about Rockwell and gallery and museum catalogues." Curtis also wrote to Stuart in 1986 asking about the paintings, and his lawyer wrote back asserting his ownership. And, in 1994 Stuart loaned the paintings to the Norman Rockwell Museum, and the museum "has always identified the Paintings as the property of the Stuart family, both at the Museum and on its web site." (While the works were on loan, a member of the family that owns Curtis was on the museum's board of directors.) All in all, the court found, Stuart and his family "repeatedly, and for the better part of ... four decades ..., publicly asserted that they were 'owned' by Stuart, Sr., or were 'the property of,' or belonged to 'the collection of' Stuart, Sr., and his wife." Accordingly, Curtis's ownership claim was barred, both by Connecticut's three-year statute of limitations for conversion claims and by the looser equitable doctine of laches. I assume the decision is on appeal, but it's a pretty tightly reasoned opinion and a reversal seems like a real longshot.