Massachusetts Appeals Court Halts Berkshire Museum's Art Sale

Berkshire Museum’s plan to deaccession of the collection to raise US$60m provoked a storm of protest from the Berkshire community, as well as from other museums. 40 pieces of artworks - including two paintings by Norman Rockwell - were scheduled to be sold at Sotheby’s New York on 13 November (Monday).

Protestors gathered in front of the Berkshire Museum

The 114-year-old museum announced a plan to sell 40 pieces through Sotheby’s auction and expected to fetch US$60m, in which US$40m for new endowment and the remaining US$20m for museum’s renovation.

Valley of the Santa Ysabel is one of the 40 pieces to be auctioned

The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), as written in their joint statement, were “deeply opposed” to the move since artwork should be sold only to add new works or care for existing work, not for the museum’s renovation. They expressed concern over existing and prospective donors being discouraged by the idea that museums can raise money through selling parts of their precious artwork donated, which also makes financial donation seems unnecessary. Putting the museum’s collection for sale also diminishes the core of works available to the public.

Giant Redwood Trees of California is one of the 40 pieces to be auctioned

The museum hoped to address its budget shortfalls (over US$1.15m) that had existed for more than 20 years. “That’s change, move or die,” said Executive Director of the museum. “We can’t care for our collection if we don’t exist.” Items to be sold are deemed to be no longer essential to the museum’s new incarnation.

Saying Grace at Sotheby’s New York in 2013

The works include paintings by notable American artists like Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) and Frederic Church (1836-1900). At Sotheby’s New York 2013, Rockwell’s Saying Grace, estimated at US$15m – 20m, was auctioned off for US$46m (with buyer’s premium).

Norman Rockwell’s Shuffleton Barbershop is one of the 40 pieces to be auctioned

Public viewing at Sotheby’s

Protestors gathered in front of the Berkshire Museum

Last Tuesday (7 November), Massachusetts judge rejected a temporary restraining order request by two sets of plaintiffs, including Rockwell’s sons, as well as the office of the Massachusetts attorney general. They said it would violate various trusts and restrictions related to how the works must be handled.

The attorney general, Maura Healey (image above) asked the court last Friday (10 November) for an injunction to block the sale in a bid to get more time to complete her investigation into the legality of the sales. The court granted the request and put the sale on hold until 11 December, on which the injunction will expire.

Works have been taken down from the public viewing at Sotheby’s York Avenue headquarters

Officials from the museum and from Sotheby’s said they were disappointed by the decision. We will keep you all posted of any updates. Please stay tuned.