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Judge Denies Motion to Halt Berkshire Museum Sale at Sotheby’s

Inside the Berkshire Museum.
ARTNEWS

With less than a week to go before works from the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, go on the block at Sotheby’s in New York as part of a sell-off aimed at stabilizing the museum’s finances and funding a “New Vision,” a Massachusetts judge denied a request from a variety of plaintiffs for an injunction to stop the sale. Barring additional legal action, the first batch of those works, including a Norman Rockwell estimated to sell for as much as $30 million, will go up for auction on Monday, November 13.

In a victory for the Berkshire Museum’s leadership, the 25-page ruling by Judge John A. Agostina stated that those who had filed suit–the sons of Norman Rockwell, area residents, and current and former museum members–lacked standing to pursue a claim.

The Massachusetts attorney general’s office had joined the plaintiffs last week in calls for the sale to be halted, and while the judge noted that the office did have standing, he described its argument as that of a “reluctant warrior” that failed to prove the museum’s board had violated any laws in crafting its plan, which has generated national debate on the rights and responsibilities of museum leaders.

“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 at the conclusion of his ruling. “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.”

Elizabeth McGraw, the president of the Berkshire Museum’s board, said in a statement, “We believe we acted consistent with our responsibility to this community and our collections, to keep this museum open now and strengthen it for generations to come. We are grateful the judge recognized the care and diligence the board exercised in arriving at this decision.”

Michael Keating, an attorney for the three sons of Norman Rockwell, who had alleged that their father donated two works to the museum with the understanding that they would remain there permanently, said 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.”

In a hearing last Wednesday in Pittsfield, Keating slammed the museum’s board for signing a contract with Sotheby’s to sell works before sharing its plans with the public.

Nicholas M. O’Donnell, a lawyer for current and former museum members, said by email, “My clients had certainly hoped for a different outcome, but we are reviewing the decision and considering my clients’ options.”

A spokesperson for the attorney general’s office said that it was reviewing the decision.

Some works from the museum’s collection, including two Rockwells, a Francis Picabia watercolor, and an Augustus Saint-Gaudens sculpture, are currently on view at Sotheby’s, where they will remain until going on the block next week.

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