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AG Requests Extension As Berkshire Museum Art Sale Inquiry Continues

Facebook: Maura Healey

The Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office wants more time to investigate the Berkshire Museum’s controversial art sale. 

Attorney General Maura Healey’s office has asked a Boston Appeals Court to extend an injunction until the end of January.

The Berkshire Museum’s art sale saga has been the talk of the art community in the Berkshires, and nationally, since Executive Director Van Shields announced the sale of 40 artworks from its collection, including two works by Norman Rockwell, to fund an endowment and expansion in July.

Shields stepped aside in October for surgery and is on medical leave. But his call to action: “change, move or die… act now and act boldly to avoid a crisis down the road that threatens our very existence,” remains the museum’s message.

The museum says it has annual deficits of about $1 million, which have totaled more than $11.8 million since 2007. All told, the sale is expected to fetch $68 million.

Following legal challenges, the sale moved forward in November when lawsuits by Rockwell’s three sons, museum members and residents were denied by a Berkshire Superior Court.

Courtney Aladro of Healey’s office contends residents, members and especially art donors, like the Rockwell estate, had the right to know about the sale. She spoke against the sale in court.

“We do believe that there is strong law on that donors are presumed to know the terms of the charter, including both the powers and the purposes that are contained in there,” Aladro says.

Aladro is referring to specific legal restrictions that prohibit the museum from selling artwork donated before 1932.

Family spokesperson Margaret Rockwell says “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” and “Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop” were given to the Berkshire Museum “as gifts to the people of the Berkshires, [and that] they should remain in the Berkshires, as he intended.”

Auction house Sotheby’s in New York City was set to begin the sale November 13th. At the 11th hour, Healey’s office appealed the lower court’s decision, and was granted a one-month injunction, halting the sale.

Appeals Court Judge Joseph Trainor in Boston, who approved the injunction, said in a November statement: “To the extent clarification is needed, all proceedings in the trial court are stayed pending further order of the single justice.”

The auction house contends Berkshire Superior Court Judge John Agostini’s verdict was “carefully reasoned,” and that it “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.” 

Museum lawyers filed papers Monday calling for a trial in Berkshire Superior Court in Pittsfield to accelerate the legal dispute while aspects of the case are under review in the Appeals Court in Boston.

Opponents of the sale are concerned the renewed calls for an expedited trial in the lower court in Pittsfield could give the museum a better chance at moving forward with the sale.

Museum officials are concerned the delay will harm the institution’s relationship with Sotheby’s and reduce the art’s value.

Museum attorney Bill Lee contends the Board of Trustees spent ample time researching and developing the New Vision plan. Lee and some area elected officials have defended museum leadership.

“The only thing that people are doing now is Monday morning quarterbacking of a two-year process, saying you might have done some things differently. But our legal system doesn’t allow for that,” Lee says. “And at the end of the day: Loud voices, accusations, character assassination are not the kind of thing that you resolve an issue like this.”

The one-month injunction on the planned sale ends Sunday. If the motion by Healey’s office to extend the injunction is approved, the legal battle would continue into the new year.

In the filing, the AG’s office says it will conclude its investigation by January 29th – provided the museum makes witnesses “reasonably available” for follow up interviews by January 22nd. It’s also still waiting for documents related to the museum’s deaccessions and sales in 1934, 1935 and 2008 as well as documents from the museum’s Collections Committee over the last decade.

Museum lawyers say the injunction has already put the institution in “precarious financial condition.”

Carol Diehl of the grassroots “Save the Art" group says she hopes the museum board will change course.

“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.”

The museum is expected to file a response to the state’s litigation by Tuesday.

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