A Massachusetts judge has cleared the way for the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield to auction works from its collection at Sotheby’s starting next week, including two paintings by Norman Rockwell given to the institution by the artist. One Tuesday, 7 November, Judge John Agostini denied two motions to block the sales brought by Rockwell’s sons, Berkshire Museum members and the Attorney General’s Office, saying they did not have legal standing to oppose the sale.
“This may very well mean that timeless works by an iconic, local artist will be lost to the public in less than a week’s time,” Agostini wrote in his decision. “No doubt many will be disappointed in this outcome, and they may take little comfort knowing that, in their loss, the rights of a charitable board to make thoughtful decisions to steer its charity through troubled times have been vindicated.” The museum, which has been struggling with a reported $1m annual deficit, aims to use the proceeds of the sales, estimated at around $60m, to fund an ambitious “New Vision” plan and create an endowment.
The judge made particular note of the actions of the Attorney General’s Office in the cases, calling it “a reluctant warrior”. The office has been investigating the planned deaccessioning since this summer but only recently voiced its concerns about how the museum board has reached its decision to the sell the works. “It is obvious that the AGO’s lack of aggressiveness speaks volumes to this court,” the judge wrote. “As such, this court takes the AGO at its word that its ‘concerns’, are in fact concerns only, and that, absent these ‘concerns’, the AGO would have no qualms with a museum in severe financial straits deaccessioning and selling some of its most valuable objects to finance a new approach for serving the purposes of its charter.” A spokeswoman for the AGO says it is reviewing its options.
Sotheby’s said in a statement that it “was very pleased that the court reaffirmed that the Board of Trustees acted in good faith and fulfilled its fiduciary duties. We are looking forward to successful auctions beginning next week that will ensure a bright future for the Berkshire Museum in support of the community of Pittsfield and Western Massachusetts.”
Elizabeth McGraw, to president of the Berkshire Museum’s Board of Trustees said: “We are grateful the Judge recognized the care and diligence the Board exercised in arriving at this decision, and that today’s decision will ensure we can move forward.”
Michael Keating, the attorney for Rockwell’s sons, told Artnews in a statement: “We are disappointed our clients and others who are Berkshire County residents will no longer have an opportunity to see this treasured art. We are especially disappointed on behalf of the Rockwell family whose father was promised his paintings would always remain home and be shown in Berkshire County. The sale of these artworks represents a huge loss to the community.”
Several of the works, including Rockwell’s Shuffleton Barbershop, as well as works by Albert Bierstadt, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Francis Picabia, Henry Moore and Edouard Vuillard, went on view at Sotheby’s New York headquarters last week, and remain up until its sales starting Monday, 13 November.