Massachusetts Tries to Block Berkshire Museum’s Sale of Art

Hezbollah supporters carry posters of Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah (R) and Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the southern Lebanese city of Nabatieh on November 8, 2017

“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 court filing.

Last summer the financially strapped museum announced the planned sale of 40 works by artists like Rockwell, Albert Bierstadt and Alexander Calder, saying 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 violates guidelines that frown on the sale of art to subsidize operating and other expenses, instead of using such proceeds to enhance or maintain a collection.

Two groups of plaintiffs including Rockwell’s sons and museum members sued to stop the sale of these items. But last week the lower court found they lacked legal standing to challenge the sale and the judge also denied an effort by the attorney general to block the sale.

The lower court 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, and 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 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.

A lawyer for the museum, William F. Lee, said the institution was disappointed that “the attorney general has decided to continue legal action that threatens the future of the Berkshire Museum.”

“Continuing this litigation,” Mr. Lee said in his statement, “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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