battle in the berkshires

‘We Are Disappointed but Not Surprised’: After First Round of Sales, Berkshire Museum Pulls in $42 M., Below $55 M. Goal [Updated]

Norman Rockwell’s Blacksmith Boy (1940), which sold at Sotheby’s today for a hammer of $7 million, its low estimate.


On Wednesday morning at Sotheby’s in New York, one of the Berkshire Museum’s Norman Rockwell paintings, Blacksmith Boy (1940), sold for its low estimate of $7 million to a bidder on the phone with Elizabeth Goldberg, the auction house’s chairman of American art. (With buyer’s premium added, the figure stands at about $8.13 million.)

That was the highest price realized by the museum as part of a controversial sell-off of 13 works over the past few couple weeks at Sotheby’s, which also included a Francis Picabia watercolor and an Alexander Calder mobile that hammered for a below-estimate $1 million last week (in a sale to Sandy Rower, the grandson of Calder who leads the Calder Foundation).

After the offering of 13 pieces at auction (two of which failed to sell, including a Frederic Edwin Church estimate at $5 million to $7 million) and a private deal through which the Lucas Museum in Los Angeles bought Rockwell’s Shuffleton’s Barbershop (1950) for an undisclosed sum, the museum, which is based in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, said that it has now brought in $42 million, well short of the $55 million it has hoped to raise in an effort to build an endowment and close a budget deficit that its leadership has said risks shuttering the museum in coming years.

“Considering the unpredictable nature of the art market, we are disappointed but not surprised to fall short of our expected goal by close to $13 million,” Elizabeth “Buzz” McGraw, the president of the museum’s board, said in a statement, while adding, “These auctions move the Berkshire Museum . . . forward by providing resources needed to secure the museum’s future.”

The total hammer on the 11 lots sold at auction was about $12.7 million. (That is without buyer’s premium, which typically is received by the auction house.) The $42 million total reported by the museum for its sales to date means that Lucas possibly paid somewhere around $29.3 million for Shuffleton’s Barbershop, which Sotheby’s had previously tagged with a $30 million high estimate. (It is not known if the museum is receiving a portion of the buyer’s premium paid on auctioned lots, a practice known as enhanced hammer; if it is, that would mean that the price paid for Shuffleton’s Barbershop was likely less. The auction house has reportedly waived seller’s fees for the museum.)

Since the plan was announced last summer, the Berkshire Museum has been slammed by professional groups who argue that the sell-off will dissuade future donors as well as opponents who have staged protests outside the auction house in advance of some of the sales.

Under the terms of an agreement struck with the Massachusetts Attorney General and approved by the state’s highest court, the museum has the option of selling up to 40 works—in three separate tranches—in order to reach the stated $55 million mark, meaning that 26 more works could still potentially be sold. (And the two works that passed could be offered again.)

“We will take time now to consider how we will proceed, through possible auction and private sale, to gain the additional resources needed,” McGraw said. “We are eager to continue the important work of planning for the future.”

Update, May 23, 10:10 p.m.: Information was added about the hammer prices of the 11 works sold at Sotheby’s and the possible price paid for Shuffleton’s Barbershop.

Update, May 24, 4:50 a.m.: Details added about how the possible price for Shuffleton’s Barbershop was calculated and how an enhanced hammer could affect it.

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