Museum responds to Mass. official's attempt to stop art sale

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Attorney General Maura Healey is joining a call for the Berkshire Museum to halt its plan to sell off artworks, including two Norman Rockwell paintings given to the museum by the artist.

The request came in response to a motion filed recently by three sons of Rockwell, and others, seeking a temporary restraining order against the museum's plan to sell 19 of the works at auction beginning next month. That suit named Healey as a party of interest in the complaint, a move that required her office to respond.

"Any sale of the art in question in violation of the law would result in irreparable harm to the public interest," according to a 27-page response issued by Healey's office on Monday.

The attorney general's office is currently conducting a review of the sale, which it has not yet completed. Monday's response is not the attorney general's last word on the matter, but to preserve the status quo, the office joins the motion for a temporary restraining order.

"There are a number of aspects of the Museum's plans that raise concerns, some of which the Plaintiffs have detailed in their Complaint, and others of which have arisen in the course of the AGO's investigation," the response says.

In the motion filed Oct. 20, the Rockwells joined with community members to seek a temporary restraining order barring a Nov. 13 auction by Sotheby's on the grounds that it is not allowed under state statute and would violate what they see as the museum's duty to act in the public interest.

A hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled for 11 a.m. Wednesday in Berkshire Superior Court before Judge John Agostini.

In response, attorney William F. Lee, from the firm WilmerHale, representing the Berkshire Museum, said in a statement, "We respectfully disagree there is any further inquiry for the Attorney General to conduct before these long-scheduled sales can proceed."

He said the museum has cooperated fully for more than four months, providing documents and information to the attorney general's office.

"While the museum appreciates the time and attention given this matter by the Attorney General's Office, we look forward to presenting the museum's legal arguments to the court without further delay," Lee said. "We continue to believe that there is no legal barrier to the museum proceeding with the deaccession and its plans for a sustainable future which are critical to the region. We look forward to presenting those arguments in court."

Sotheby's said it will proceed with the auctions beginning on Nov. 13 unless a court rules otherwise.

Elizabeth McGraw, president of the Berkshire Museum Board of Trustees, also disagreed with the attorney general's call to halt the planned sale.

"We respect the role of the Attorney General in this process, but continue to believe we have strong legal grounds to move forward and secure the future of the Berkshire Museum as an invaluable asset to the educational, cultural and economic life of our community," she said in a statement. "We have made clear that the board of trustees acted consistent with its mission and the founding principles of this museum and our fiduciary responsibility. Our plan is to proceed, but these are now issues for the court to decide."


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