CARIBOU, Maine — In one of those quirky, one-degree-of-separation events, a northern Maine lawyer had more than a passing interest in a record-setting art auction earlier this month.
Three hugely popular Norman Rockwell paintings sold for close to $57.8 million to unidentified buyers after more than two decades of legal wrangling and family infighting, according to Peter Kelley of Caribou.
The works, “Saying Grace,” “The Gossips” and “Walking to Church,” had been given to longtime Saturday Evening Post editor Kenneth J. Stuart by Rockwell.
When Stuart died in 1993, he left his estate — including the paintings — to his three sons, Kenneth Jr., William and Jonathan.
For the next two decades, the brothers remained locked in legal battles over their father’s estate, with William and Jonathan accusing Kenneth of taking advantage of their elderly father and forcing him to sign various documents.
During that time, the paintings remained in secure storage at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., Kelley said.
And, despite the family’s legal battles, it may have been for the best.
“Ken is a very close friend of mine,” Kelley said on Monday. “We are old Harvard guys from the Class of 1963.”
Over the years, Kelley helped advise his classmate on how to best deal with the estate issues from a legal standpoint.
“He was the personal representative of his father’s estate, and my take on it was always simple,” Kelley said. “Sell everything and divide it by three.”
But questions of who owned what, only recently settled out of court, prevented any selling of assets.
“They came to an agreement just months ago,” Kelley said. “I was able to review it, and it specified how things were divided up.”
So this month the brothers finally could put the three paintings up for auction and turn the American art world on its ear.
“Ironically, if they had sold them in the late ’90s, they may have gotten $10 million,” Kelley said. “But due to their bickering, it gave [the paintings] time to appreciate to $58.8 million.”
“Saying Grace” was sold to an unidentified buyer for $46 million, “The Gossips” brought in $8.45 million, and “Walking to Church” fetched $3.2 million.
Among the suspected buyers, according to Kelley, are George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.
The previous record for a Rockwell painting was $15.4 million paid for “Breaking Home Ties” in 2006.
On Monday, Kelley said he couldn’t be happier for his longtime friend and is looking forward to congratulating him in person when they meet up next week in Florida for a celebratory meal.
“He is really a great person and so deserving of this,” Kelley said. “But I did tell him he was buying supper.”