Disputed Sale of Rockwells by Museum Can Go Forward, Judge Says

The museum, in Pittsfield, announced over the summer that it was planning to sell 40 pieces from its collection by artists like Rockwell, Albert Bierstadt and Alexander Calder and use the proceeds to increase its endowment, renovate its building and expand programming as part of a larger effort to reshape the museum as an interdisciplinary institution that focuses on science and nature as well as the arts.


The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass., which announced earlier this year that it planned to sell 40 works of art, including two by Normal Rockwell, as part of an effort to survive financially. Credit Ben Garver/The Berkshire Eagle, via Associated Press

But the plan drew criticism, locally because of the loss of beloved images and in museum circles because of longstanding resistance to any sale of art that is used to underwrite operational expenses instead of being used to enhance an institution’s collections.

In a joint statement the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors condemned the sale in July, writing: “One of the most fundamental and longstanding principles of the museum field is that a collection is held in the public trust and must not be treated as a disposable financial asset.”

The attorney general’s office initially filed papers supporting the request for an injunction, telling the court that it had “concerns” over the sale and needed additional time to complete an investigation. Last week, the office asked that it be substituted as a plaintiff if the court determined that the lawsuits by the Rockwell descendants and museum members lacked standing.

But Judge Agostini described the office as a “reluctant warrior,” noting it had never filed suit to block the sale on its own. He said the lawyers for the state had not specified what information was necessary to complete a review of the sale, what attempts had been made to obtain such information, or when the office would be in a position to offer its opinion regarding the merits of the sale.

Meanwhile, the judge said, the requested delay would have had “considerable financial consequences” for the museum. The Rockwells alone are estimated to bring in as much as $40 million, according to the Sotheby’s catalog.

The museum and Sotheby’s both praised the judge’s decision. Emily Snyder, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, said the agency was reviewing its options.

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