The association between the Boy Scouts of America and Norman Rockwell spanned more than six decades, yielding dozens of commissioned coming-of-age portraits that evoke virtue, bravery and Americana.
But now faced with tens of thousands of sex-abuse claims, the debt-saddled organization is poised to do the unthinkable: Sell its collection of Rockwell’s art.
In a reorganization plan filed in federal bankruptcy court in Delaware this week, the Boy Scouts listed nearly 60 of pieces of art by Rockwell whose sale would help raise money for a settlement fund of at least $300 million for sexual abuse victims.
The names of the paintings include “The Right Way,” “On My Honor” and “I Will Do My Best.” The years that they were completed range from 1916 to a lithograph in 1976, two years before Rockwell’s death in 1978.
“The plan demonstrates that considerable progress has been made as we continue to work with all parties toward achieving our strategy to provide equitable compensation for victims and address our other financial obligations so that we can continue to serve youth for years to come,” the Boy Scouts said in an email statement Tuesday night.
Last February, the organization, facing an avalanche of sex-abuse claims that now exceeds 82,000 cases, filed for bankruptcy protection.
It was not immediately clear whether the collection had been appraised and for how much. The 379-page court filing Monday did not include values for each piece of artwork, and the Boy Scouts did not elaborate on how much the organization would seek for the collection.
Many of the paintings are oil on canvas and were commissioned over the decades by the Boy Scouts, which first hired Rockwell to illustrate “The Boy Scout’s Hike Book” in 1912. He soon became art editor of Boys’ Life, as the organization’s monthly magazine was called at the time.
A prominent Rockwell biographer suggested Tuesday that the value of the paintings in the Boy Scouts’ collection might be more sentimental compared to some of the most prized works by Rockwell, who she said was never a scout himself.
Deborah Solomon, an art critic and the author of “American Mirror: The Art and Life of Norman Rockwell,” said in an email Tuesday night that while Rockwell’s paintings of scouts were hugely famous, they did not rank among his best works.
In 2013, “Saying Grace,” a Rockwell painting not associated with the Boy Scouts that appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post on Nov. 24, 1951, fetched $46 million when auctioned by Sotheby’s. The following year, “After the Prom” sold for $9.1 million and “The Rookie” for $22.5 million.
Solomon, a frequent contributor to The New York Times, noted that many of the Boy Scout paintings were assigned to Rockwell, frequently for calendars, with the organization often dictating the subject matter and saddling him with rules.
“He wasn’t free to invent or imbue the canvases with his usual array of closely observed details,” she said.
One of more notable examples came in 1941 when Rockwell produced a popular painting in which a scout, braving a hurricane, carries a young girl to safety, according to Solomon.
“Although the scout is standing in the rain, his uniform is dry and crisply pressed,” she said. “Rockwell was annoyed when he was told to paint out a single water droplet that he had initially painted on the scout’s uniform.”
Many of Rockwell’s paintings for the Boy Scouts have been on display at the Medici Museum of Art in Howland, Ohio, since last year as part of a free exhibition that is still continuing.
Katelyn Amendolara-Russo, the museum’s associate director, said in an email Tuesday night that the museum had been made aware that the collection could be sold in bankruptcy when it first entered into an agreement with the Boy Scouts in 2019 to host the exhibition. She added that the museum would continue to display Rockwell’s works for as long as possible.
“We are obviously disappointed in this because it is a wonderful display of scouting in action for over 100 years as portrayed by one of America’s greatest artists, Norman Rockwell, who had a lifelong passion for scouting,” she said.
Representatives for the Boy Scouts said that many aspects of the reorganization plan were still being refined through mediation and that the organization hoped to emerge from Chapter 11 reorganization by this fall.
So what would Rockwell think of Boy Scouts parting with his prized works?
“I am sure he would be horrified to learn of the sexual-assault charges,” Solomon said, “and I would guess that he would want the Scouts to sell its collection of his paintings for the purpose of starting a victims’ fund and rewarding the kids and former kids who deserve compensation.”