The Berkshire Museum’s sell-off of works from its collection marched on today, with news that a major 1875 Frederic Edwin Church painting of a sun-drenched valley in South America that had failed to sell during an auction at Sotheby’s in New York on Wednesday has been acquired by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia in a private sale for an undisclosed sum.
The sale means that a second work from the Berkshire Museum, which is located in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, is now definitely heading to a public institution. The museum had previously sold its most valuable work, Shuffleton’s Barbershop (1950), a Norman Rockwell painting donated by the artist, to the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles, also in a private transaction for an undisclosed sum. (The identities of other buyers of the works at auction are not yet known.)
PAFA’s director, Brooke Davis Anderson, said in an interview this afternoon that, while Church exhibited at her institution a number of times during the mid-19th century, the museum did not have one of his works in its collection—even though Church is “on that wish list that every curator and museum has.” In recent years, the museum has been building its collection of Hudson River School pieces, she said, adding works by Edward Bannister, Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, David Johnson, and others.
The painting by Church, which measures about 40 by 60 inches, had been donated to the Berkshire Museum in 1907 by Henry W. Buckingham and Clifford H. Buckingham, who lived in Pittsfield. Anderson said that PAFA will offer Berkshire County residents, as well as Berkshire Museum members, free admission to PAFA in perpetuity. “This is a way of saying that our public collection in the public trust is theirs, too,” she said.
Professional groups like the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Alliance of Museums have vocally opposed the Berkshire Museum’s deaccessioning plan on the grounds that it discourages future donors and violates industry guidelines, which typically allow for the sale of art only in order to improve, hone, or care for a collection. (The Philadelphia Inquirer noted today that, in 2013, PAFA boosted its acquisition endowment by selling an Edward Hopper for $40 million.)
“In general, our feeling is that while it is great that this work will remain in the public domain, this does not mitigate the fact that the funds realized from the sale will be utilized for a purpose that AAMD believes will, ultimately, be damaging to the field,” Christine Anagnos, the executive director of the AAMD, said by email today.
Asked about potential criticism of a museum acquiring the deaccessioned piece, Anderson said, “What we’re excited about is that we’ve taken a masterful American work, we’re sharing it in the public domain, and we’re placing it in a public collection. We’re committed to sharing this work with many different communities. We feel that’s part of our responsibility to the story of American art.”
The Berkshire Museum announced on Wednesday that it had so far earned $42 million from the sale of 12 works from its collection, meaning it was $13 million short of the $55 million it hopes to raise in order to create an operating endowment, make renovations, and close a budget deficit that could cause it to close.
With the sale of the Church work, the museum is presumably closer to its goal, but it is unclear how much closer. A museum spokesperson has not yet responded to a question about its current tally, and PAFA said that it does not comment on the details of individual sales. When the painting sold today was sent to auction it carried a $5 million-to-$7 million estimate, so it seems likely that the private sale was near or below the lower end of that range. But at the moment the figure is not known.
The eleven works sold at Sotheby’s auctions over the past two weeks include another Rockwell donated by the artist to the museum, which hammered for $7 million, and a William-Adolphe Bouguereau painting that hammered for $1.45 million. (In addition to the Church, an Alberto Pasini estimated at $700,000 to $1 million failed to sell at auction.)
Those auction sales came about as a part of an agreement reached by the Berkshire Museum with the Attorney General of Massachusetts and approved by the state’s Supreme Judicial Court, which allows the museum to sell up to 40 pieces—organized in three tranches—to raise the $55 million. The museum’s board president, Elizabeth “Buzz” McGraw, said yesterday, “We will take time now to consider how we will proceed, through possible auction and private sale, to gain the additional resources needed.” It remains to be seen how this post-auction sale will affect the museum’s plans.