Bankrupt Boy Scouts may need to sell Norman Rockwell art to pay sexual abuse victims

Nathan Bomey, USA TODAY

Buried in the fine print of a document filed as part of the Boy Scouts of America bankruptcy last week is a brief mention of a potentially huge asset: "original Rockwell paintings."

The disclosure that the organization owns works by Norman Rockwell, the American painter and illustrator, is hardly a surprise since the artist and Scouts have been linked for more than a century. But the acknowledgment of those valuable assets, potentially worth millions to creditors, could set off a legal fight over their future. 

With the Boy Scouts estimating they'll face about 1,700 lawsuits over alleged sexual abuse dating back decades, the nonprofit is under pressure to sell off its holdings to pay victims. By filing for bankruptcy, the organization has tried to provide itself a path to carry out that process in an orderly way.

The Boys Scouts of America declined to comment for this story.

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Why Boy Scout Rockwell art is at risk

While the group is expected to argue that real estate owned by local Scout councils is not part of the bankruptcy – and therefore did not include the local property in its initial court filings – by mentioning the artwork it appears to be conceding that its collection could be at risk of liquidation to satisfy creditors.

The decision could be fraught one for the Boy Scouts. The group's clean-cut image sprung in part from the hand of Rockwell, who created artwork of scouts saluting, serving and adventuring for the covers of Boys' Life, the organization's magazine, for more than half a century.  

The Scouts join past bankrupt institutions, like Polaroid and the city of Detroit, that faced pressure to sell off cherished artworks to pay off debts. 

The federal bankruptcy judge appointed to oversee the Scouts' case could eventually be forced to decide whether the collection should be sold if the debtor and creditors can't agree to a resolution.

"The tension between the law and these emotional connections that sustain and support the institution in many ways is a very real issue for the court to deal with," said Houlihan Lokey managing director of Steve Spencer, a restructuring adviser who has counseled companies on the potential sale of art in multiple bankruptcies. 

Nicholas O'Donnell, leader of the art and museum group at the law firm Sullivan and author of the Art Law Report blog, said it'll be a "tough argument to make" that the Boy Scouts should be allowed to keep the paintings. But that doesn't mean the organization won't try.

“There’s already the tension of, ‘Yes, a terrible thing happened, but do we have to hamstring the Boy Scouts of America going forward" and thus leave the organization without valuable assets it may need down the line, he said.  "Particularly with respect to these images, which are so closely associated with the Boy Scouts, you’re going to see a lot of backlash on that.”

How much could Rockwell paintings be worth?

How much could the Rockwell paintings be worth? 

The record sale at auction for a Rockwell painting was $46 million for "Saying Grace," an oil-on-canvas piece depicting a mealtime prayer that Rockwell painted in 1951, according to auction house Sotheby’s New York.

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A painting of that value would be worth more than the Boy Scouts' most valuable national property, its sprawling Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico, which the organization estimated is worth $40.1 million.

Sotheby's, which sold "Saying Grace" in 2013, declined to comment further on the value of the artist's work or the Boy Scouts' collection.

A Boy Scout-themed Norman Rockwell painting is displayed on July 22, 2013, during an exhibition at the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Boy Scouts of America disclosed in a bankruptcy document that the group owns original Rockwell paintings, which could be sold off to pay sexual abuse victims.

Rockwell works continue to fetch premium values, said Barbara J. Sussman, an accredited member of the American Society of Appraisers.

Sussman – who has appraised Rockwell art before, including works of "substantial value" featuring scouts – declined to speculate on the value of the Boy Scouts' collection. But she said about eight Rockwell paintings have sold for "multi-millions" of dollars, while "quite a few" have sold for about a million and many have sold for hundreds of thousands.

"Norman Rockwell is really an American icon," Sussman said. "He hits the heartstrings of people when they see it. His images resonate with nostalgia."

Art aficionados and tourists will soon have an opportunity to peruse the collection to assess it for themselves.

In an arrangement made long before the bankruptcy, the collection is poised to go on exhibit at the Medici Museum of Art in Howland, Ohio, beginning March 22, under the name "Norman Rockwell: American Scouting Collection."

The Boy Scouts' fine-art collection includes more than 350 pieces, including 65 original Rockwell works, as well as items by Rockwell mentor J.C. Leyendecker and Rockwell mentee Joseph Csatari, museum spokeswoman Beth Kotwis-Carmichael wrote in an email to USA TODAY.

"The museum staff is in the early stages of surveying the collection, which includes paintings, drawings and prints," Kotwis-Carmichael said.

Kotwis-Carmichael referred questions on the value of the collection to the Boy Scouts, which declined multiple requests to provide more information.

Art in Polaroid, Detroit bankruptcies

If past bankruptcies involving art are any indication, the items could be sold:

  • Polaroid: In the second bankruptcy of Polaroid, filed in 2008, the debtor reaped millions of dollars from the sale of thousands of photos taken by Ansel Adams, Andy Warhol, William Wegman and others, Spencer said.
  • City of Detroit: In the largest Chapter 9 bankruptcy in U.S. history, filed in 2013, the city's Detroit Institute of Arts owned masterpieces by the likes of Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Picasso and Matisse. Estimates of the collection's value ranged up to about $8 billion, and creditors pressured the city to consider selling art to pay down debts. But the collection was eventually preserved as part of a compromise involving philanthropic contributions and state dollars, which were used instead of money from painting sales to limit the level of pension cuts.
  • Johnson Publishing Co.: The one-time publisher of "Ebony" and "Jet" magazines – which filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy liquidation in April – recently auctioned off its collection of paintings, drawings and other artwork. The company also sold off its historic photo archive to a consortium of philanthropic organizations that plan to donate the items to museums and research groups.

In Chapter 11 bankruptcies like the Boy Scouts' case, debtors have a legal obligation to consider selling their assets, including art, to pay their creditors, Spencer said.

Jeff Anderson, an attorney representing victims of sexual abuse who are seeking compensation from the Boy Scouts, said it's too early to say whether the creditors will pursue a liquidation of the art.

"I think it will depend upon how candid the Boy Scouts of America are," he said, calling on the organization to reveal what he alleged was the full scope of sexual abuse that occurred over the last several decades. "If they’re looking to come clean ... then they will have no problem, I’m pretty confident, preserving things like that."

In previous bankruptcies involving Catholic dioceses, abuse victims did not pursue a liquidation of cherished religious relics, Anderson said.

"We said that's off-limits completely," said Anderson, who represented victims in some of those Catholic church cases. 

But "these," he said, referring to the Rockwell paintings, "we could not say are automatically off-limits."

Rockwell personal ties to Boy Scouts

The emotional connection between the Boy Scouts and Rockwell, who died in 1978 at age 84, runs deep.

Rockwell was first hired by the Boy Scouts to create a series of pen and ink drawings for the "Boy Scout’s Hike Book" and was appointed art editor of Boys' Life, the Scouts' magazine, at 19, according to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

At 22, in 1916, he began working for The Saturday Evening Post" at which point he resigned his salaried job at Boys’ Life. But he continued to include Scouts in his artwork, including images on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. 

And in 1925, he returned to work with the Boy Scouts, creating 51 annual illustrations for the Boy Scout calendar. It's unclear if those illustrations are part of the group's collection.

In 2018, the Norman Rockwell Museum featured the artist's 64-year relationship with the Boy Scouts in a special exhibition.

Museum spokesperson Alyssa Stuble declined to comment on the Boy Scouts' Rockwell collection.

"We can’t technically answer questions about paintings that are not in our collection and that we know relatively little about because they are not under our care," she said.

Sussman, the fine-arts appraiser who has evaluated Rockwell works, said the artist's work continues to attract collectors because of its "surprising freshness and spontaneity," as well as its quality.

Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Boy Scouts may sell Norman Rockwell art to pay sexual abuse victims