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On Saturday morning, a group of nearly a dozen people who oppose the Berkshire Museum’s plan to sell off some of the most valuable works from that institution’s permanent collection gathered in front of Sotheby’s. The auction house’s first sale of the controversially deaccessioned works, originally scheduled for today, was barred by an injunction late on Friday. Nevertheless, the protesters who gathered in the bitter cold on Saturday had no illusions about this issue being resolved.
“We are cautiously optimistic,” said Hope Davis, a member of Save the Art – Save the Museum, the group that has been most vocal in opposing the sale and organized Saturday’s simultaneous protests at the New York City auction house and at the museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. “Regional museums are horribly undervalued, and we hope that this situation will lead to some new legislation being passed to safeguard their collections. In this instance, though, the importance of the art was not a consideration [for the museum].”
The protesters on Saturday stood outside the main entrance of Sotheby’s auction house on York Avenue brandishing signs with slogans like “Museums and Art Are Not Piggy Banks” and “Bring Our Rockwells Home,” the latter in reference to the two deaccessioned works with the highest pre-sale estimates, both of which were donated to the Berkshire Museum by Norman Rockwell. Sotheby’s had already removed those works from view at the time of the protest and taken down a banner at the corner of York Avenue and East 71st Street advertising the Rockwells. Photos posted by Save the Art – Save the Museum on Facebook suggest that the simultaneous gathering in Pittsfield drew a crowd of a similar size.
While the Save the Art – Save the Museum members celebrated a temporary victory — the injunction granted by an appeals court judge on Friday blocks the Berkshire Museum from selling any works through December 11, though the Massachusetts Attorney General can extend it — another Northeast institution’s treasures will be sold this month as planned. Tom Andolora of Jamestown, New York, was on hand in solidarity with the Berkshire Museum supporters after his hometown institution, the James Prendergast Library, consigned some 50 paintings from its collection for auction despite community opposition.
“We can’t afford to lose that art,” Andolora said. “That art was our salvation.”