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Massachusetts Attorney General On Track to Complete Berkshire Museum Inquiry by Late January

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Today the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office filed a progress report with the state’s Appeals Court, stating that it is on track to complete its investigation of the Berkshire Museum’s plan to sell 40 of its most valuable works through Sotheby’s by January 29, “provided that the Museum continues to provide necessary documents and make its witnesses available for interviews in early January.” Even with that resolved, though, the legal battle could continue for some time.

In its progress report, the AGO says that it has reviewed 500 additional documents since the injunction was extended, conducted interviews with museum officials, and scheduled interviews more. Van Shields, the museum’s director, returned to work late last month after a medical leave, and the office says it is working to schedule an interview with him.

The museum’s legal counsel has lambasted the length of attorney general’s investigation, with one of its attorneys, William F. Lee, saying last month, “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.”

In the progress report, the AGO answers in a footnote. “Despite the Museum’s continued mischaracterization of this investigation and the AGO’s authority to proceed with it,” the report reads, “the AGO has been working diligently to review information as it is received and is striving to conduct its investigation in an efficient and cooperative manner. To that end, the AGO has worked with the museum to narrow the scope of certain document requests.”

The AGO was required to file the progress report as the result of a ruling by Justice Joseph A. Trainor that also extended a preliminary injunction putting a halt on the sale, which had originally been issued in November, through January 29. That injunction came just days before the first works from the Pittsfield, Massachusetts, museum were set to hit the auction block in New York. In total, the museum hopes to raise upwards of $50 million from the sale, and to use the proceeds to shore up its finances and to refocus its mission on science and natural history.

The museum’s leadership has repeatedly argued that it has been acting thoughtfully, and in line with legal guidelines, to save the museum from having to close because of a long-running structural deficit and an dwindling endowment. The AGO, for its part, has said it has “significant questions and concerns” about the sale, including the fact that it might violate the wishes of various donors, and that its proposed “New Vision” is such a substantive change to its charter that it requires court approval.

Once the investigation is complete, the courts will have to determine whether the consolidated cases, brought by various plaintiffs intent on halting the sale and first heard in Pittsfield Superior Court in November, can proceed to trial, and what effect such a trial will have on the museum’s desire to move the works to auction as quickly as possible. The Pittsfield court initially declined to block the sale, saying that the museum’s board was acting within its authority, and that the all the plaintiffs, except the Attorney General’s Office, lacked standing to sue.

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