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Judge Green-Lights Berkshire Museum’s Sale of Most Valuable Works in Collection

Today, Berkshire Superior Court Judge John Agostini ruled that the museum could auction off many of the most valuable works in its collection.

The exterior of the Berkshire Museum (photo by Daderot., via Wikimedia Commons)
The exterior of the Berkshire Museum (photo by Daderot., via Wikimedia Commons)

A judge has cleared the way for the Berkshire Museum to proceed with the controversial sale of some of the most valuable works in its permanent collection, including two works by Norman Rockwell.

This afternoon, Berkshire Superior Court Judge John Agostini ruled that the plaintiffs in two lawsuits filed against the museum — including one brought by three of Rockwell’s sons — had not made a sufficiently compelling case to stop the auctioning off of the work, the Berkshire Eagle reported. The first Berkshire Museum works are due to hit the auction block at Sotheby’s in New York on Monday, including the most valuable, Rockwell’s painting “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” (1950), which is expected to bring between $20 and 30 million.

“No doubt many will be disappointed in this outcome,” Judge Agostini wrote in his 25-page decision, “and they may take little comfort knowing that, in their loss, the rights of a charitable board to make thoughtful decisions to steer its charity through troubled times have been vindicated.”

The ruling comes as something of a surprise after Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey sided with the plaintiffs and raised doubts about the Berkshire Museum’s decision to sell the most valuable works in its collection at auction. In a motion issued last week, Healey’s office had called on the court to issue a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction to delay the sale so it could complete its examination.

The Berkshire Museum, an art and science museum located in Pittsfield in western Massachusetts, first announced in July that it planned to deaccession and sell 40 works from its collection at auction to shore up its endowment, fund renovations, and help implement its “New Vision” project. The museum and auction house have since pulled several works acquired before 1932 because, according to the Attorney General’s motion, they violate the terms of the museum’s original charter.

The first batch of works from the museum’s collection is due to go under the hammer on Monday, with other works hitting the auction block at Sotheby’s in five subsequent sales through March 2018. The sales are estimated to bring the Berkshire Museum $50–60 million.

The deaccessioning has been especially controversial because most of the funds generated will go toward operational expenses as the museum shifts its focus. According to the Berkshire Eagle, the institution’s leaders claim that without a major infusion of funds the museum could close within eight years.

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