Court Blocks Berkshire Museum’s Sale of Rockwell Works and Other Art

The injunction will expire on Dec. 11, but the court added that the attorney general’s office may move to extend it.

Sotheby’s had described the Berkshire Museum works as a “superb collection” that was “among the highlights” of its American Art sale this month.

In addition to “Shuffleton’s Barbershop,” which Sotheby’s said Rockwell created for the cover of The Saturday Evening Post in 1950, the auction was to include Rockwell’s “Blacksmith’s Boy — Heel and Toe (Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop),” which was estimated to have a price of $7 million to $10 million.

Among other museum works to be offered on Monday were “The White Dress” by Thomas Wilmer Dewing, “Hunter in Winter Wood” by George Henry Durrie and “Connecticut River Valley, Claremont, New Hampshire” by Albert Bierstadt.

Last summer, the financially strapped museum announced the planned sale of 40 works, including Impressionist and modern art, contemporary art, 19th-century European paintings, American art and Chinese art. The museum said the proceeds were needed to build its endowment, renovate its building and expand programming to create a “heightened emphasis on science and history.”

Museum organizations condemned the plan, saying it violated guidelines against the sale of art to subsidize operating and other expenses instead of using such proceeds to enhance or maintain a collection.

Rockwell’s sons and a group of museum members sued separately to stop the sale. But Judge John A. Agostini of Berkshire Superior Court found that they lacked legal standing. Judge Agostini also denied a request by the attorney general to block the sale.

The state’s lawyers told the appeals court on Friday that the museum was looking to sell nearly all of its valuable art. Doing so would violate a number of trusts, they said, including what they described as a promise to Rockwell that his works would remain in the permanent collection and another pledge that some of the works slated for auction would never leave Pittsfield.

“This sale is unprecedented in terms of the number, value and prominence of the works being proposed, the centrality of these works to the museum’s collection, and the process the museum employed to select and dispose of the deaccessioned items,” the attorney general’s office said in its filing on Friday.

The lower court had described the attorney general’s office as a “reluctant warrior,” whose objections had not included specific details on how it would review the planned sale. It noted that a delay would have “considerable financial consequences” for the museum. It did not find that the museum had violated any of the charitable trusts through which it had come into possession of the art.

The attorney general’s office countered in its filing on Friday that while the museum could sell the works in the future, any items disposed of at auction would be very difficult to get back. It said the museum had not abided by its most pressing mission — to preserve its charitable purpose — and that whatever the financial hurdles, its relationship to other museums and with donors would be damaged by the sale.

Nicholas O’Donnell, a lawyer representing the museum members who filed suit, said that “with the benefit of some breathing room and the continued investigation by the attorney general, they are hopeful that reason will prevail.”

Lawyers for the museum could not immediately be reached for comment. Earlier, a lawyer for the museum, William F. Lee, responded to the attorney general’s filing by saying the institution was disappointed that the state had “decided to continue legal action that threatens the future of the Berkshire Museum.”

“Continuing this litigation,” he added, “jeopardizes vital educational, cultural and economic resources in a struggling community, placing the special interests of a portion of the well-funded arts community over people, especially young people, really in need.”

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