battle in the berkshires

Group Opposed to Berkshire Museum Sell-Off Plans Sotheby’s Protest

Henry Moore, Three Seated Women, 1942, which is being sold from the collection of the Berkshire Museum.


The highest court in Massachusetts ruled last month that the Berkshire Museum can go ahead with its plan to sell works from its collection to build an endowment and cover other costs, but a group opposing that controversial plan is not going quietly into the night.

Save the Art–Save the Museum, which has staged rallies outside the museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and at Sotheby’s in New York, said today that it plans to do another outside Sotheby’s on Monday, May 14, from 5:45 p.m. to 7 p.m., before two works from the museum are sold off in a sale at the auction house that evening.

“Our presence outside the auction house is intended to bring attention to unethical deaccession practices and discourage other institutions from following this course of action,” said Hope Davis, an art adviser who is a spokesperson for the group. “Current law does not adequately protect these publicly held collections from a not-for-profit’s temptation to monetize works held in the public trust.”

The Berkshire Museum’s decision—which was also approved, with a few conditions, by the Massachusetts attorney general, Maura Healey—involves as many as 40 works being sold from its holdings in order to raise upwards of $55 million that will go toward an endowment, renovation costs, and a “New Vision” plan for the museum that places an increased emphasis on technology. Museum leaders say that the sales are essential in order to close a structural budget deficit, while organizations of museum professionals have roundly criticized the move as irresponsible, saying that it goes against industry guidelines and will dissuade patrons from donating to museums.

On Monday, a 1942 drawing by Henry Moore drawing and a 1914 Francis Picabia watercolor are set to be offered in the Impressionist and modern art evening sale at Sotheby’s, with additional works to follow at later sales. The Berkshire Museum’s crown jewel, Norman Rockwell’s Shuffleton’s Barbershop (1950), was sold privately to the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art for an undisclosed sum. It had been scheduled to be auctioned at Sotheby’s last fall with an estimate of $20 million to $30 million but was removed from the auction when a Massachusetts appellate court paused the sale in order to allow the state’s attorney general’s office more time to study the situation.

“The museum’s divisive process and the resulting sale caused a rift in the community and has fueled discussion among art professionals nationwide about violations of donor intent and deaccessioning ethics,” Leslie Ferrin, who runs the gallery Ferrin Contemporary in North Adams, Massachusetts, said in a statement. “The Berkshire Museum is now synonymous with the problems that arise when the word deaccession comes up. Donors and institutions will need to add specific new language in contracts, since the laws as written do not offer enough protection.”

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