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Opponents Rejoice After Berkshire Museum Art Auction Halted

Protestors at the The Berkshire Museum in 2017.
JD Allen

The controversial sale of art from the Berkshire Museum’s collection was planned for today at Sotheby’s auction house in New York City – but late last week an appeals court judge approved a one-month injunction. 

What was supposed to be a last-ditch attempt to halt the sale of 40 artworks outside the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts Saturday drew educators, artists and residents. But as it turned out, the rally became more of a celebration.

Carol Diehl of the grassroots “Save the Art" group cheered the news that the sale has been halted.

“It’s a success for today,” Diehl says, “and you know, there could be an appeal, there could be things that happen in the future.”

In June, the Berkshire Museum announced its New Vision, a plan calling for a top-to-bottom renovation and the creation of an endowment. The project was to be funded by the sale of museum-owned artworks, including two by Norman Rockwell, expected to fetch $68.6 million.

At the 11th hour, the state attorney general's office appealed a Berkshire Superior Court decision that green-lit the sale after Rockwell’s three sons and museum members brought suit.

An appeals court judge approved a one-month injunction late Friday, halting Monday's sale. Again, Diehl.

“My hope is that the museum board will say enough of this. They have spent enough on lawyers. They don’t need to drag this out. If they were to stop now, bring back the art, turn into the good guys and unite the community, they could do fundraising like they have never seen before. There is nobody who just wants to get rid of the art,” Diehl says, “so we could have our cake and eat it too.”

Museum attorney Bill Lee told WAMC in a statement Friday: "We are disappointed that the Attorney General has decided to continue legal action that threatens the future of the Berkshire Museum, particularly after a very clear legal decision rejected the arguments the Attorney General repeats in this misguided appeal."

Attorney Michael Keating represents the Rockwell family.

“There are significant legal issues that had not yet been determined as to the legality of the sale,” Keating says.

Family spokesperson Margaret Rockwell says, “Norman Rockwell gave ‘Shuffleton’s Barbershop’ and ‘Shaftesbury Blacksmith Shop’ to the Berkshire Museum. They were given as gifts to the people of the Berkshires. They should remain in the Berkshires, as he intended, and they should be exhibited for all to enjoy.”

“The impact of the 1871 statute, which provided that any gifts that were given to the [Berkshire] Athenaeum had to stay in Pittsfield, and 19 of the 40 items that the Museum wanted to sell had been given to the Athenaeum under that restriction,” Keating says.

Those works were removed from the auction block in October.

“Whether or not the sale of these 40 works of art, which were the most valuable of all the collection that the museum owned – by their own admission were most valuable – was such a major transformation of the mission of the museum that they had to go to court to get a court approve it,” Keating says.

The Berkshire Museum says it’s looking at its legal options.

Sotheby’s and the Berkshire Museum Board of Trustees President Elizabeth McGraw expressed disappointment in statements released Monday. The auction house contends Berkshire Superior Court Judge John Agostini’s verdict was “carefully reasoned,” and that they “never doubted that the Board of Trustees acted in good faith and was well within their legal rights, and [Sotheby’s] remain confident that they will prevail in their plans.” 

McGraw says, “The auction that held the promise of addressing our museum’s serious financial difficulties will have to proceed without our works, and our plans for the future will be delayed pending the next steps in the legal process.”

In a column published Sunday in The Berkshire Eagle, McGraw points to annual deficits of about $1 million, which have totaled more than $11.8 million since 2007. 

At Saturday’s rally, Tom Patti — who was involved in the second lawsuit against the museum — stood holding a print of “Shuffleton’s Barbershop.” Patti says giving away what he calls the museum’s “treasures” is not the solution.

“Quality and integrity are the most important two elements of what will maintain an important institution in the Berkshires,” Patti says.

The stay is effective until December 11th, but can be extended by Democratic Attorney General Maura Healey in order to finish her office’s review of the sale.

Democratic Congressman Richard Neal of the 1st House District told WAMC’s Alan Chartock on Congressional Corner November 1st:

“I would prefer to keep the Rockwell paintings in the Berkshires,” Neal says. “It’s part of your heritage.”

Sotheby’s has already pulled all of the Berkshire Museum items off the sell list for tonight.  

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