We evaluated 11 coupled climate model simulations regarding the spatial structures of sea-surface temperature (SST) variability in the North Atlantic, during the second half of the twentieth century. The subset of models includes CCSM4, CSIRO, CanESM and MPI-ESM, participating in the fifth phase of the Climate Model Intercomparison Project. The evaluation was performed to determine the potential of these models to be used at a later stage as test beds for the evaluation of climate field reconstruction methods that will use the extremely long-lived bivalve mollusk Arctica islandica, an outstanding paleoclimate archive for the boreal and temperate North Atlantic (Schöne, Glob Planet Change 111:199–225, 2013). Several validation metrics such as the mean bias, variance, spatial and temporal co-variability and trends of the North Atlantic summer SSTs showed that some of the models can be used to test paleoclimatic reconstructions. However, most models showed shortcomings in simulating the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation. Concerning the co-variability of summer SSTs between proxy sites and the whole North Atlantic SST field, we found that these proxy locations contain a SST signal that might represent a (basin-wide) signal for the north-eastern North Atlantic basin.