On November 13, at Sotheby’s headquarters on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, works that the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, is deaccessioning, by Norman Rockwell, Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt, and others, are expected to hit the auction block, and additional pieces are to be offered at later sales.
The Rockwell family has vocally opposed the sale of the museum’s two Norman Rockwell paintings, Blacksmith’s Boy – Heel and Toe (Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop), 1940, and Shuffleton’s Barbershop (1950), which the artist himself gave to the museum, on the grounds that Rockwell had intended for them to remain there permanently, and last week, the family spoke with representatives from the office of the Massachusetts attorney general in Boston, a meeting first reported in the Berkshire Eagle.
“It’s possible that these paintings could go into a Swiss vault or a Russian oligarch’s dining room,” Margaret Rockwell, a spokesperson for the Rockwell family, said in a telephone interview today. “You may never get to see them again.”
A rep for the attorney general said in an email to ARTnews that “our office is reviewing the proposed transaction to see how it comports with applicable charities law.” The office has not said when it might comment on the Berkshire Museum’s plan, which involves selling 40 works in order to grow its endowment, shift its focus toward science exhibitions, and renovate its building.
The sell-off, which could raise upwards of $50 million, has generated fierce criticism from the Association of Art Museum Directors, the Alliance of American Museums, and other arts experts. Professional guidelines prohibit museums from using the proceeds of artwork sales for anything other than new acquisitions.
The Berkshire Museum has said that the deaccessioning is essential to cover a budget deficit, an analysis that some have disputed.
Asked for comment on the attorney general’s involvement this afternoon, a museum spokesperson said, “We respect the integrity of the AG’s important review process and we’re cooperating fully in that process. The Berkshire Museum is committed to being inclusive, and we have conducted intensive community and stakeholder outreach and dialog throughout the course of this process—and we’re continuing to working collaboratively to ensure that the Berkshire Museum’s future is enriching, engaging, and inspiring, and that it remains a cultural destination in this area.”
“What is happening is that the Berkshire Museum is breaking Norman Rockwell’s trust, and the public trust at the same time, and hurting the reputation of the people of the Berkshires, and it’s a bad precedent for museums all over,” said Margaret Rockwell, who is married to Geoffrey Rockwell, one of Norman’s grandchildren. She was speaking by phone from Roosevelt Island in New York, on her way to visit Louis Kahn’s Four Freedoms Park, and she noted that Norman Rockwell’s painting series on that theme will be shown at the New-York Historical Society in May.
As the sale date nears, Sotheby’s has sent works from the museum on tour to attract bidders, and Rockwell pointed out that photos from recent events in Houston and Dallas show pieces by Moran, Bierstadt, Frederic Edwin Church, and Thomas Wilmer Dewing hanging on showroom walls. The Dallas event featured a “luxury chocolate bar” courtesy of the charter-plane company Sentient Jet. “Who knows where the Norman Rockwells are?” Rockwell said. A press rep for Sotheby’s said selections from the museum’s collection have been shown in Hong Kong, London, and Texas, and will be on view in Los Angeles and San Francisco in the next week.
Rockwell said that officials with the attorney general’s office gave no indication at last week’s meeting about whether they believe they had the authority to step in and halt the sale. The family has hired a lawyer and is reviewing its legal options in the event that the attorney general decides not to act.
Members of the Rockwell family signed an open letter in August specifically opposing the sale of Shuffleton’s Barbershop, but Rockwell said they have never received a reply from museum leadership. “They’re not listening, they don’t want to listen,” she said. “It’s shocking, actually, and it’s hurting a lot of art lovers everywhere.”