battle in the berkshires

Short of $55 M. Goal, Berkshire Museum Earmarks Nine More Works for Sale

Thomas Moran, The Last Arrow, 1867.


Today the Berkshire Museum said that it will sell nine more works from its collection through Sotheby’s as part of a controversial deaccessioning plan to raise $55 million that the museum has said is essential for its survival and that museum groups have criticized as damaging to the industry. So far, the Pittsfield, Massachusetts institution has raised $47 million from the sale of 13 pieces. This next batch of works includes an Alexander Calder sculpture and paintings by Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, and Benjamin West, as well as two Qing Dynasty pieces.

Last fall, when Sotheby’s marketed the full set of 40 works that the Berkshire Museum said it was willing to sell, eight of the nine pieces in the group announced today carried a total estimate of between $5.01 million and $7.67 million. If those works sell for within their estimates, they could potentially bring the museum within the realm of reaching its $55 million goal. (The Calder, a 1932 piece titled Dancing Torpedo Shape, did not have a figure attached to it by the auction house in its initial publicity push, but it would of course increase the total sum.)

The American works will be offered through private sales, with the aim of having them remain in collections that will put them on public view, according to the museum, while the Chinese pieces will be sold on the auction block at Sotheby’s in September, during Asia Week in New York. Setting aside the sans-estimate Calder, the work that been marked with the highest estimate was the Moran, an 1867 landscape that had been expected to sell for between $2 million and $3 million.

In a first round of sales at Sotheby’s this spring, two works from the Berkshire Museum failed to sell and another Calder hammered for $1 million, half of its low estimate.

Following those sales, it was not exactly clear how much the museum still had to raise to reach $55 million, a target agreed to in a deal it reached with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office after a legal battle that went all the way to the state’s Supreme Judicial Court.

A month ago, the museum announced that it had hauled in $42 million on the sale of 12 works, but that was right before the announcement that a Frederic Edwin Church painting it owned had been purchased in a private deal by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. That was one of the works that had failed to find a buyer when it went before bidders at Sotheby’s, with an estimate of $5 million to $7 million. Last week, the Berkshire Eagle reported that it had obtained a letter from a lawyer for the museum to the AGO stating that it now had brought in $47 million, meaning that the Church possibly sold for around $5 million. (A spokesperson for the museum confirmed the $47 million number this afternoon while stating that the Church price is confidential.)

Since sales were cleared by the Supreme Judicial Court, the Berkshire Museum has parted with 13 works—11 were sold at Sotheby’s in New York in the spring, and two were sold privately, including a Norman Rockwell masterpiece that the artist had donated to the museum, Shuffleton’s Barbershop (1950), which was acquired for an undisclosed sum by the Lucas Museum in Los Angeles. (That price was possibly around $29 million, though that figure has not been confirmed by any party involved in the deal.)

The museum’s leadership first announced last summer that it wanted to part with 40 works to raise funds in order to shore up what it has describes as a structural budget deficit, to make building renovations, and to reorient the way its collection is presented. Museum groups have spoken out against the museum, since professional guidelines typically allow the sale of artworks only to benefit an institution’s collection. Last month, the Association of Art Museum Directors placed sanctions on the Berkshire Museum, asking its members not to cooperate with it on exhibitions and arguing that such sales dissuade future patrons from making donations.

The museum’s agreement with the attorney general requires that its sales of art be structured in three tranches. If this second tranche of nine works fails to bring its total to $55 million, it will have the option of selling off 18 more works.

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