The battle over the Berkshire Museum’s attempt to sell 40 works from its collection continues to rage, with no sign of compromise or resolution in sight.
Today, a justice on the Massachusetts Appeals Court extended until January 29, 2018, a 30-day injunction that he issued last month that prohibits the museum from going ahead with the sale of the works—the most valuable ones in the collection of the Pittsfield, Massachusetts, institution—at Sotheby’s. The sell-off could raise more than $50 million, and the museum has said it needs the infusion of cash to right its finances and pursue an ambitious “New Vision” plan, which involves renovations and an increased emphasis on science exhibits with high-tech displays.
The Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office had requested the extension on the injunction, which it won just days before works by Norman Rockwell, Albert Bierstadt, and others were set to hit the block at the auction house’s New York headquarters. The AGO had said that it needed the injunction and the extension to complete its review of sale. It has argued in legal filings and a court appearance that the museum’s board may have erred in its decision to sell works that are central to its mission and may have violated the trust of some donors who believed their gifts would remain in its permanent collection.
The Berkshire Museum has argued fervently against the injunction, saying that it has acted boldly to save itself from a financial crisis and that the AGO has had adequate time to look over its actions. It has said in legal filings that the investigation is “one-sided” and that the museum has proceeded at a “languid pace.” The museum won a resounding victory in the first round of the legal battle, when a judge in Berkshire Superior Court in Pittsfield declined to issue an injunction in advance of a full trial. The museum has asked for the Superior Court to move quickly to hold a full trial, but the injunction also prevents that for now.
“We are disappointed proceedings have been delayed further, preventing this case from being resolved publicly and fairly,” one of the museum’s attorneys, William F. Lee, of the firm WilmerHale, said in a statement provided by a museum spokesperson. “These delays benefit no one. It is ironic that, during this holiday season when the Museum is visited and enjoyed by more families than ever, its future is placed in grave jeopardy.”
The AGO, for its part, applauded the decision. “We are pleased that this order will allow us to complete our investigation,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “In the meantime, we urge the Berkshire Museum to work constructively with us on alternatives to help secure the future of the Museum.” The extension requires that the AGO provide a progress report on its investigation by January 3, 2018.
The Berkshire Museum is currently being led by two acting directors; its director, Van Shields, is expected to return, after a medical leave, in the new year, according to the museum’s spokesperson.
Since the injunction went into effect on November 10, parties on various sides of the dispute have continued to fight in the press and in legal filings. On Monday, the museum released some documents that had previously been impounded in court hearings that detail aspects of the planning and discussion that led to the board’s controversial decision. (Felix Salmon, who has opposed the sale and closely followed the case, has analyzed their contents, as has the Berkshire Eagle.)
The case is being closely watched, and hotly debated, by museum directors, curators, board members, lawyers, and other professionals, since its outcome could have broad implications for how boards of museums go about their jobs in Massachusetts and throughout the United States.