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The legal dispute over some 40 artworks that the Berkshire Museum planned to deaccession and sell through Sotheby’s has taken another turn. Last fall, an attempt to quietly auction off the most valuable works in its collection — including “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” (1950), a work by Norman Rockwell that the artist gifted to the museum — ignited public furor, legal action, and protests. Now the Pittsfield-based museum has reached a deal with the office of Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey that would allow the works to be sold. That compromise will be presented to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts on February 27, along with filings being prepared by opponents of the plan.
On February 9, the Berkshire Museum and the Attorney General Office (AGO) announced that an as yet unidentified nonprofit museum has agreed to buy “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” and put it on public display; it also agreed to loan the work to the Norman Rockwell Museum for up to two years. (The Norman Rockwell Museum is about 15 miles south of the Berkshire Museum.) The painting’s fate had been the main point of contention for Thomas, Jarvis, and Peter Rockwell, the artist’s sons. Last week, with the work’s enduring public display seemingly ensured by the AGO’s agreement, the Rockwells dropped their complaint.
“The Rockwell family joined this litigation to prevent ‘Shuffleton’s Barbershop’ from being sold at a public auction or being removed from public display,” the Rockwells said in a statement supplied by their attorney, Michael Keating of Foley Hoag LLP. “That objective has now been achieved and therefore they do not wish to participate in further legal proceedings concerning the disposition of other art held by the Berkshire Museum.” Sotheby’s was more cautious in its response; a spokesperson for the auction house told Hyperallergic it would not comment until the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts rules on the AGO’s agreement.
“The Museum created extreme divisiveness in the community by not engaging its constituents — even its members and donors — in its intention to sell the art, contracting with an auction house in secret, and evading fiscal transparency,” a statement sent to Hyperallergic by the group Save the Art — Save the Museum reads in part. “As of mid-February 2018, even the Attorney General’s Office admitted it does not know who is paying the Museum’s legal bills. The only way the community can be healed is to bring back the art, commit to ethical practices and fiscal transparency, and engage in open dialogue with the community.”
At the outset of the deaccession project, the museum’s leaders stated that it has been operating with an annual deficit of $1.15 million and claimed that without a major cash infusion, the institution might be forced to close within eight years. Of the total sum generated from the sales, $20 million were originally earmarked for the museum to implement its “New Vision” plan, which will see it shift its emphasis to science, history, and more interactive exhibits.
According to the terms of the Berkshire Museum’s agreement with Attorney General Healey, the museum would sell the deaccessioned works through Sotheby’s in three batches, until it has raised $55 million in net proceeds. The first $50 million it would be free to use as it pleases; the following $5 million would be put into a fund to support future acquisitions and the museum’s collection; and anything over $55 million would be put into a separate fund to benefit its collection and acquisitions. Any (or all) of the money raised could be put to executing the museum’s “New Vision” plan.
It remains unclear how many of the 40 works originally slated to be deaccessioned would come to auction at Sotheby’s under the terms of the museum’s agreement with the AGO. The sales were originally expected to net the Berkshire Museum between $46 and $68 million — with “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” alone estimated to bring $20–30 million. The other deaccessioned works include two paintings by Albert Bierstadt, two sculptures by Alexander Calder, a Frederic Edwin Church landscape, a Francis Picabia watercolor, a 1942 pastel by Henry Moore, and a Rembrandt Peale portrait of George Washington.