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Court OKs Berkshire Museum Plan to Sell Art by Calder, Bierstadt, Picabia, and Others

Today’s ruling in the Supreme Judicial Court of Suffolk County clears the way for Sotheby’s to auction off over three dozen works from the museum’s collection.

The Berkshire Museum (illustration by the author)
The Berkshire Museum (illustration by the author, museum photo via Wikimedia Commons)

The long dispute over the proposed sale of dozens of works from the collection of the Berkshire Museum ended today, with a Massachusetts court siding with advocates for the sale. This afternoon, Justice David A. Lowy of the Supreme Judicial Court of Suffolk County approved a petition submitted by museum leadership in February, with the support of Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, as the Berkshire Eagle first reported.

“This is great news for the people of Berkshire County and everyone who visits the Berkshire Museum for one-of-a-kind experiences in history, art, and science,” Elizabeth McGraw, chairman of the Berkshire Museum’s Board of Trustees, said in a statement sent to Hyperallergic. “We recognize this decision may not please those who have opposed the museum’s plans. Still, we hope people will be able to move forward in a constructive way to help us secure and strengthen the future of this museum, at a time when our community needs it more than ever.”

As many as 40 artworks from the collection of the museum, which is based in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, are now cleared to be sold at Sotheby’s, potentially bringing the museum as much as $55 million. The museum’s administration claimed the sales were necessary not only in order to right the institution’s financials — it has apparently been operating at an annual deficit of $1.15 million — but also to implement its $20-million “New Vision” program, shifting the museum’s emphasis toward science, technology, and more interactive exhibits.

Today’s decision did not sit well with members of the Berkshire community who had opposed the sale, including the citizen group Save the Art – Save the Museum (STA-STM), one of the most visible and vocal groups against the deaccessioning.

“STA-STM continues to oppose the sale and the unrestricted use of the resulting funds,” Leslie Ferrin, a member of the group who runs the North Adams-based gallery Ferrin Contemporary, told Hyperallergic. “We deeply regret the the judge’s decision to disregard the public trust and the importance of future consequences from this sale on public collections. As a group, we will make a more detailed statement after meeting in person to consider the loss to our community, the impact from the results of this decision, and future actions.”

Protesters opposing Sotheby’s sale of works from the Berkshire Museum collection at a rally on Saturday, November 11, 2017. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Protesters opposing Sotheby’s sale of works from the Berkshire Museum collection at a rally on Saturday, November 11, 2017. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

At the outset, the foremost opponents of the sale were Thomas, Jarvis, and Peter Rockwell, the sons of Norman Rockwell, who opposed the sale of their father’s painting “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” (1950). That work, which the artist gifted to the museum in 1958, was expected to account for the lion’s share of the auction revenue, with a pre-sale estimate of $20 to 30 million. However, the Rockwells dropped their opposition to the sale in February after an agreement was reached to keep “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” on public view.

“While we are disappointed with the Court’s decision, we believe that our clients raised important questions concerning the Museum’s decision to sell the art which are not only important to the citizens of Berkshire County but also to the art world in general,” said attorney Michael Keating of Foley Hoag LLP, who represented the Rockwell heirs and other opponents of the sale. “Our clients hope that the Museum has a successful future, considering the enormous cost the Museum and the citizens of Berkshire County will incur by the sale of its art collection. We note that the Court’s decision encourages the Museum to sell its art in ways which preserve public access to that art and we hope that the Museum adheres to that suggestion.”

The museum and Sotheby’s New York headquarters were the sites of protests last fall. At the time, a judge had halted the sale just days before the first works were scheduled to hit the auction block. Now, the sales can resume.

“We are very pleased that the court approved the agreement reached between The Berkshire Museum and the Massachusetts Attorney General,” a spokesman for Sotheby’s told Hyperallergic. “We look forward to working with the museum to ensure a bright future for the people of Pittsfield and western Massachusetts.”

It’s not yet known when the first deaccessioned works from the Berkshire Museum collection will hit the auction block. The pieces slated for sale include two paintings by Albert Bierstadt, two sculptures by Alexander Calder, a Rembrandt Peale portrait of George Washington, a Francis Picabia watercolor, a Frederic Edwin Church landscape, and a 1942 pastel by Henry Moore.

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