Court OKs Berkshire Museum sale of 40 works of art, including 2 Rockwells

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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Two iconic paintings by Norman Rockwell and other artworks owned by the Berkshire Museum can be sold as planned, after the struggling nonprofit prevailed Tuesday in a Berkshire Superior Court legal challenge.

Judge John Agostini ruled that plaintiffs in two civil actions failed to make their case to halt a large-scale deaccession by the museum.

The decision is a big win for the museum, and comes nearly four months after trustees announced a new direction for the 114-year-old South Street institution.

The museum can now proceed with a series of sales at Sotheby's in New York City that start Monday and continue through next week. The museum plans to use up to $60 million in auction proceeds to expand its endowment and to shift its focus to science and nature programming.

The case has drawn national attention and is considered precedent-setting because it may be the largest such deaccession to date in the museum world in which proceeds would be applied in large part to operational expenses.

Though the museum first said it would sell 40 works from its collection, that number was reduced after the state Attorney General's Office signaled that it viewed the sale of works acquired before 1932 as improper.

It isn't yet clear how the ruling will affect scheduling for sales that had been put on hold.

Despite the fact that Agostini has been deliberating since Nov. 1, the auction house continued to market works from the museum collection, including two paintings by Norman Rockwell that are featured in a special exhibit at its Manhattan headquarters.

Agostini had questioned attorneys on both sides of the issue in a two-hour Berkshire Superior Court hearing on Nov. 1.

Hours after that hearing ended, the Attorney General's Office filed an emergency motion asking Agostini to allow it to be substituted as a plaintiff, if he decided that the original plaintiffs did not have proper standing to bring the action. Agostini allowed that motion.

The Attorney General's Office said in a brief filed Oct. 30 that it believes sale of the art works is improper for several reasons, including what it termed the trustees' failure to provide a "duty of care" for their role overseeing the nonprofit.

Agostini spent the first half of last week's hearing exploring the issue of legal standing, as he considered motions to grant a preliminary injunction stopping the planned sale of 40 works from the museum's collection.

Plaintiffs include three sons of artist Norman Rockwell; Tom Patti, a Pittsfield artist who has sold works to the museum; and seven residents of Berkshire County.

Museum leaders say they acted to sell the works after determining that the 39 South St. facility could close within eight years unless it manages to stabilize its books.

The museum, founded in 1903 by Dalton industrialist Zenas Crane, has been running a roughly million-dollar yearly deficit.

After working with a consultant, museum trustees decided to sell works from their collection and apply the proceeds to a capital project and to expand its endowment to roughly $40 million.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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