'Shuffleton's Barbershop' to be sold to U.S. museum; will be shown at Rockwell Museum

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — If approved by the state's top court, the Berkshire Museum will sell Norman Rockwell's "Shuffleton's Barbershop," its most valuable work, on the way to drawing $55 million out of its collection.

But the work will be sold to a nonprofit museum in the United States, and four months after the transaction will spend 18 to 24 months on display at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, which is not the buyer.

The museum declined to identify who the purchaser will be or the amount that will be paid for the painting, which is considered one of Rockwell's masterworks.

The museum and Attorney General's Office on Friday revealed terms of their joint effort to resolve a legal dispute over the propriety of art sales.

The agreement must be approved by a single justice of the Supreme Judicial Court.

After the initial sale, all of the 40 works that the museum marked for deaccession and sale last July will be eligible to be sold, but only until proceeds hit a cap of $55 million.

That ceiling is part of the joint petition the two parties outlined Friday, after months of litigation that prevented the museum from its plan to begin art sales through Sotheby's in November.

Proceeds up to $50 million could be used for any purpose, according to the agreement. Any sum after that up to $55 million can be used for the benefit of the museum's collection, including its planned renovation.

The filing is considered a breakthrough in the long-running dispute and could influence how museums view potential sales of works in their collections.

In court briefs and public statements, the museum has insisted that without an influx of money, the institution that philanthropist Zenas Crane founded in 1903 could be forced to close within eight years.

Outside experts, including the Massachusetts Cultural Council, questioned whether the nonprofit's financial condition was as dire as reported.

When trustees announced plans to sell top pieces from their collection, they said they would add $40 million to their endowment and apply another $20 million in auction proceeds to a renovation and re-invention project they dubbed the New Vision.

By selling works to cover operational expenses, the museum broke ranks with trade associations. Ethics codes of those groups say revenues from the deaccession and sale of art should only be used to address the needs of museum collections.

The petition is expected to be reviewed by Justice David A. Lowy, the single justice sitting for February.

The agreement ends months of contention between the museum and Attorney General's Office. It does not resolve other litigation still before the Massachusetts Appeals Court.

In a joint filing Monday with the Massachusetts Appeals Court, the two sides signaled they were ready to find common ground.

"The AGO and the Museum have agreed to resolve [their] differences and will file a petition for judicial relief," a status report signed by both sides said.

One line in the report pointed to a compromise that was to be spelled out in the document filed Friday: "The AGO will support the relief requested by the petition."

That relief turned out to be the agreement to sell works, but only to a buyer willing to keep them in the public domain through exhibits.

Disagreement remained

As they drafted the petition together, lawyers for both the state and museum sought to resolve a key problem: They disagreed about the legality of the proposed art sales.

After completing its monthslong investigation, the Attorney General's Office held the position that the artworks are restricted from sale. But the museum said nothing barred the sales.

State prosecutors have been in the driver's seat since they managed to halt auctions at Sotheby's in New York City that were to start the week of Nov. 12. Sotheby's has custody of the art.

On Nov. 10, the Attorney General's Office won the first of three injunctions granted by Justice Joseph A. Trainor of the Appeals Court. Those orders prohibited the art from being sold.

The last injunction expired Monday, but by then the two sides had an agreement, which included a promise by the museum not to sell works until the court entered an order on the matter.

According to people familiar with the SJC's single justice system, it is routinely used to resolve issues involving nonprofits and public charities overseen by the Attorney General's Office.

By going in lock step to the SJC, the attorney general and museum avoid an extended fight through the appellate level, consuming months or years of time and expense.

Because the petition represents the views of both sides, and contains an agreed-upon set of facts, the court can review and judge them much faster.

This story will be updated.

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


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