Berkshire Museum and Massachusetts Attorney General reach deal to allow sale of works

If approved by the court, Rockwell's Shuffleton’s Barbershop will be bought by an unnamed US museum, and the other works sold in stages


The Berkshire Museum and the Attorney General’s Office have submitted a joint agreement to the Supreme Judicial Court that, if approved, will effectively allow the museum sell off 40 works of art from its collection, with some preconditions. The sale will go ahead, but in three separate stages, and only until the museum reaches a pre-arranged goal of $55m. This allows for the possibility—but does not guarantee—that the museum could keep some of the works.

As specified in the agreement, which was sketched out by the museum’s lead counsel, William Lee, during a conference call with the press on Friday (9 February), Norman Rockwell’s Shuffleton's Barbershop (1950), one of the most valuable works in the museum's collection, will be acquired by an unnamed non-profit museum in the US for an undisclosed price. The painting is estimated to be worth roughly $30m.

However, for the first 18-20 months following the transaction—expected to be completed soon after the court approves the deal—the painting will go on loan to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. After that time, the buyer will explore the possibility of lending the painting to museums in Berkshire County and greater Massachusetts, and has otherwise said that it will be displayed publicly and prominently at its own institution—wherever that might be.

Potential buyers include George Lucas and Alice Walton, prominent collectors of Rockwell's work who both have private museums. A spokesman for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, due to open in Los Angeles, would not comment on the Berkshire Museum agreement.

The Berkshire Museum, which faces a $1.5m deficit and is seeking to fund a dramatic institutional overhaul, has agreed to explore the possibility of similar transactions that would place the works in public institutions, even if they prove less financially lucrative than selling the works at auction.

“For the people of Berkshire County who rely on our museum to engage with the arts, history, and science, this agreement is the promise of a long future for our small but extraordinary museum and its collection," says Elizabeth McGraw, the president of the Berkshire Museum's board of trustees. “Importantly, the agreement adheres to Massachusetts charities law and sets an important precedent for other museums that charitable organisations must act transparently and seek court approval to modify restrictions and sell charitable assets in accordance with their charitable mission and demonstrated financial need,” says a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office.

In a joint statement, the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and The Association of Art Museum (AAMD) said: "While the negotiated agreement with the Berkshire Museum may satisfy legal standards, it falls far short of ethical standards and best practices for museums. This is indeed a sad day for the arts community in the Berkshires and the museum community across the country." The organisations added that they firmly believed the sale of art to fund operational expenses "is a violation of the public trust, and is not the path to financial sustainability for museums. On the contrary: the more museums violate the trust of their donors and the public, the more it will diminish the volume of future donations—both cash and objects—and lead to the need for more such sales."

Additional reporting by Victoria Stapley-Brown