Roger Tory Peterson's family split over auction

When the hundreds of paintings, drawings and photographs of Roger Tory Peterson are sold by a New York City auction house on Saturday, curators at the Jamestown, N.Y., institute that bears the artist's name will be watching with a mixture of disappointment, hope and pride.

"As far as we know, Roger Tory Peterson always wanted all of his belongings to come here," Anton Leenders, president of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute, said Wednesday. "But the sale is all legitimate."

The collection of works by the creator of the famous "Field Guides" series for birders and other wildlife enthusiasts being sold Saturday are owned by sisters Linda and Mimi Westervelt, Peterson's stepdaughters, and were created at his Old Lyme studio. Peterson lived and worked in Old Lyme from 1952 until his death in 1996. At the time of his death, he was married to his second wife, Virginia.

Linda Westervelt of Old Lyme said ownership of the works being auctioned was settled in a court case three years ago. Tory and Lee Peterson, Peterson's sons by his first marriage, released a statement through the institute objecting to the sale, saying it would be against their father's wishes and "a permanent loss to the public." The two are on the institute's board of trustees.

"My sister and I own them," Westervelt said. "I'm sorry they feel the need to do this."

The institute in Peterson's hometown has about 65 percent of Peterson's illustrations and paintings, as well as his photographs, slides, films, correspondence, bird skins, cameras and other equipment. Leenders said the institute has no funds to make purchases at the auction, but hopes that collectors and others who appreciate Peterson's works will buy many of the works and donate or bequeath them later to the nonprofit institute.

"It would be great," Leenders said. "These are fantastic plates that would look great in someone's living room, but we would be able to use them to further his legacy here."

The institute showcases the works of Peterson and other nature artists in exhibit space that is open to the public, and is preparing traveling exhibits of its collection, Leenders said. It is in the process of digitizing its Peterson collection.

Despite being disappointed that the works are being auctioned, Leenders said he also is pleased about the attention the sale is bringing to Peterson's work that made nature more accessible to ordinary people.

"The 'Field Guides' were such a revolutionary concept because it was an easy-to-use tool that made it easier to appreciate the natural world," he said. "He started a wave of this new way of looking at the environment."

The sale, being conducted by Guernsey's Auctioneers & Brokers, will take place from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Arader Galleries, 1016 Madison Ave., New York, and also online at A public viewing will take place from noon to 8 p.m. on Friday at the gallery.

Arlan Ettinger, president of Guernsey's, said there has been a lot of interest from individual collectors, museums and other institutions.

"We've gotten calls from all across the country," he said.

When first approached about selling the items, Ettinger said, he didn't recognize Roger Tory Peterson's name or the significance of his artwork. A few days later, at his weekend home in Salisbury, Ettinger said, "I surprised myself" and rediscovered the eight Peterson "Field Guides" on his own bookshelves.

"This just shows how ubiquitous his work is," he said. "I'm just a casual person who spends far too much on birdseed and loves all kinds of wildlife."

While Peterson's paintings of birds will be the main feature of the auction, Ettinger expects Peterson's photographs also will generate significant interest. He noted that Peterson has been called "the father of wildlife photography" and was a founder of the North American Nature Photography Association.


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