Purchase Story

Massachusetts Attorney General and Berkshire Museum Agree on Plan

After eight long months of outcries from residents and a few Norman Rockwell descendants, protest marches, injunctions, and copious numbers of documents, the Massachusetts attorney general’s office and the Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, have agreed on a plan for the sale of up to 40 artworks to address the financial needs of the museum.

The museum, with the assent of the attorney general’s office, filed a cy pres petition with the state’s Supreme Judicial Court on February 9. Should the plan be approved, all legal action between both sides would end. Cy pres doctrines allow the court to amend the terms of a charitable trust as closely as possible to the original intention of the testator or settlor when the original objective is impossible, impracticable, or illegal to perform. The attorney general’s office oversees public charities, and in this case, there were restrictions on some of the works of art that did not permit their sale.

Under the agreement, the Berkshire Museum will be allowed to sell, through Sotheby’s, “works of art previously deaccessioned, with the agreement structured so that the Museum is able to reach its demonstrated need of $55 million without necessarily selling all 40 works,” a statement from the museum read. Last September the projected proceeds from the sale were $76 million, based on auction estimates, the AG’s office noted.

Norman Rockwell’s Shuffleton’s Barbershop, which had an estimate of $20/30 million at Sotheby’s before being withdrawn by an injunction from its November 2017 auction, was given to the museum by the artist in 1959. It will be sold to a nonprofit American museum that has agreed to purchase it with conditions “ensuring the work will remain in prominent public view,” including a loan of the painting to the Norman Rockwell Museum, in neighboring Stockbridge, for 18 to 24 months. Sotheby’s was instrumental in finding the buyer, according to the museum’s press release.

Following the loan to the Normal Rockwell Museum, the buyer of Shuffleton’s Barbershop will consider periodically lending the work to museums in Berkshire County, the U.S., and around the world, according to the agreement.

The agreement allows the Berkshire Museum to sell, via Sotheby’s, the remaining 39 works, as long as the sale price, net of any fees, commissions, or costs retained by Sotheby’s received by the museum from the sale of Shuffleton’s Barbershop, does not exceed $55 million. The works will be sold in three tranches, with the number and identity of the works to be determined solely by the museum.

Elizabeth McGraw, president of the board of trustees of the Berkshire Museum, said in a statement, “For the people of Berkshire County who rely on our museum to engage with the arts, history and science, this agreement is a promise of a long future for our small but extraordinary museum and its collection. We hope it will also mark the beginning of a time when our community can come together again.”

The museum had maintained it needed to sell the artworks to survive. Its financial challenges included a dwindling endowment, an annual operating deficit of $1.15 million, and a reduced fund-raising capability. It projected having to close within the next several years if the sale was denied.

The attorney general’s office determined, after reviewing some 2300 documents, meeting with nonprofit consultants, and interviewing museum employees, board members, and third-party witnesses, that the museum “does not have any alternative sources for the significant infusion of funds it needs to continue to fulfill its mission, and the museum cannot practicably survive without lifting or amending the restrictions on at least some of the works of art to permit their sale.”

Sotheby’s declined to comment.

An injunction from the state’s Appeals Court on November 10, 2017, stopped the sale of seven works at Sotheby’s that were set to go under the hammer during the auction house’s American art sale three days later. Nineteen of the 40 artworks had confirmed sale dates. (See M.A.D., February 2018, p. 36-A.)

The six other works that were withdrawn from Sotheby’s sale included Rockwell’s Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop, 1940; Albert Bierstadt’s Connecticut River Valley, Claremont, New Hampshire, 1865; Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s The White Dress, 1921; George Henry Durrie’s Hunter in Winter Wood, 1860; John La Farge’s Magnolia, 1860; and Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s Diana of the Tower, 1899.


Originally published in the March 2018 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2018 Maine Antique Digest

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