More than three months after the Berkshire Museum announced a controversial plan to sell 40 works from its collection at Sotheby’s, the first hearing on legal action opposing the sale will be heard Wednesday, at 11 a.m., at the Berkshire County Courthouse in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
The judge hearing the case, John A. Agostini, ruled yesterday that two separate challenges to the plan—while includes deaccessioning two Norman Rockwell paintings in a sale that could raise upward of $50 million for the museum—will be heard together. One challenge comes from the sons of Norman Rockwell, who allege that their father gave works to the museum with the intent that they would remain there permanently. The other challenge was filed by current and former museum members, who argue that the museum’s board has not properly informed and consulted members of its plans and that it has failed to fulfill its fiduciary responsibilities.
The museum’s leadership has argued that the sell-off is essential to close a budget deficit that could cause the museum to close in eight years if not addressed. Museum organizations and some activists have opposed the sale, maintaining that work held in permanent collections should be sold only to acquire new work and suggesting that the museum’s board has not accurately presented its finances.
The Rockwell suit had originally been scheduled for Wednesday morning, with the other case on-deck to be heard in a Boston courtroom in the afternoon. The trustees of the museum asked that the two cases be heard together, and Agostini agreed, writing in his order for consolidation that the cases turn on many of the same legal questions and that “this is a Berkshire County dispute with essentially all of the parties living or anchored in Berkshire County and the local public interest substantial. To drag all of the individuals involved in the litigation across the state seems arbitrary and unreasonable.” (The museum had advanced those points in its motion.)
On Monday, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office weighed in with a legal filing, asking the court to halt the sale because it needed more time to study the plan. In its filing, the office raised a number of what it termed “significant questions and concerns” about the legality of various parts of the museum’s plans. The AGO was named a defendant in the Rockwell case as a necessary party, since it has an oversight role in the operation of nonprofits in the state.
In his order, the judge noted the “central role” that the Attorney General may play in the case in his decision. The AGO had not been named in the Boston case, so it made sense to proceed in Pittsfield.
The hearing comes just 12 days before the first scheduled sale of works at Sotheby’s in New York, which will see Norman Rockwell’s Shuffleton’s Barbershop (1950) hit the auction block with an estimate of between $20 million and $30 million.