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Berkshire Museum, Massachusetts Attorney General Will Ask State Supreme Court to Resolve Deaccession Disagreement

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

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The Berkshire Museum’s attempt to sell off 40 works from its collection, including two choice Norman Rockwells donated by the artist, has entered a new chapter with both the museum and the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, which has raised concerns about the sale, agreeing to file a petition with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, the highest court in the state, asking it to determine whether the pieces can be sold. The move could be a sign that a deal between the parties is in the works.

“The AGO believes that the 40 works at issue are subject to restrictions, which the Museum does not believe exist,” the two parties said in a joint filing to the Massachusetts Appeals Court, which in November placed an injunction on the sale. That sale was devised by the museum to help fund a New Vision program and to shore up its finances, and the court-ordered halt came just days before the first works were set to hit the block at Sotheby’s in New York. The two parties have agreed to file a petition on February 9, or shortly thereafter, asking a single justice of the Supreme Judicial Court to take up the matter.

The museum and the attorney general’s office also issued a joint statement, saying, “We are working together to resolve this matter, recognizing our shared responsibility for the collection of the Berkshire Museum and to the community the museum serves. We are committed to helping this museum secure its future.” That statement marked a subtle shift in tone between the parties, which had previously traded arguments in court filings and in the Berkshire County Superior Court in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where the Berkshire Museum is located.

Michael Keating, an attorney for the sons of Rockwell and other plaintiffs opposing the sale, said that, given the disagreement between the AGO and the museum, “they made a resolution that they’ll submit the issue to the Supreme Court, which I think is probably a good idea, and have the Supreme Court make the decision on what the restrictions are on these artworks.” Journalist Lee Rosenbaum has suggested that today’s filing could be a sign that a settlement is forthcoming, pending the approval of the Supreme Court.

Update, February 7: Legal experts have told the Berkshire Eagle that the petition suggests that the AGO and the museum have crafted an agreement that may allow the sale of some works, pending court approval.

The attorney general’s office had previously stated that it had “significant questions and concerns” about the sale. Among the issues that it raised was that the deaccessioning and auction would violate the wishes of Rockwell, that a 19th-century statute prohibited some works from leaving the town of Pittsfield, and that the potential effects of the sell-off and New Vision were substantial enough that it would alter its mission, a move that would require court approval. In court and legal filings, the museum has pushed back against all those claims.

The details of the positions of the AGO and the museum, and any proposed settlement, will become public in the forthcoming filing.

The Berkshire Museum announced its plans for the sale last July, sparking debates—about the responsibilities of museum boards, the funding of museums, and donors’ rights—that have reverberated beyond Pittsfield out across the United States.

Update, February 5, 8 p.m.: Rosenbaum’s analysis was added.
Update, February 7: Details of The Berkshire Eagle‘s reporting on a possible settlement was added.

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