Berkshire Museum Auction at Sotheby’s on Hold After Last-Ditch Effort by Massachusetts Attorney General

Opponents of the Berkshire Museum of Art‘s planned sale of 40 works from its collection—including two multi-million-dollar Norman Rockwell paintings—have succeeded, at least temporarily, in halting a series of auctions that were scheduled to begin at Sotheby’s New York salesroom next week.

On Friday evening, a judge agreed that Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey should have more time to complete her investigation into the legality of the sales. He granted her request for a preliminary injunction that prohibits the museum from selling works from its collection at auction until December 11.

A Sotheby’s spokesperson confirmed that the works have been taken down from the public presale viewing at its York Avenue headquarters but says that they will remain there pending further instructions from the court.

In his brief ruling, Judge Joseph Trainor concluded that the plaintiffs risked “irreparable harm” if the auction were to move forward without further study. The Berkshire had planned to sell works in a series of forthcoming auctions, including four over the next 10 days.

The surprise victory for the attorney general comes after another Massachusetts judge rejected a temporary restraining order request by two sets of plaintiffs earlier this week. Late Friday morning, Healey launched yet another motion in an effort to halt the sale. She asked a judge to require the Berkshire to pause the sale until she could plan a proper appeal of the November 7 ruling.

Norman Rockwell, Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop. Courtesy Berkshire Fine Arts.

Norman Rockwell, Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop (1966). Courtesy Berkshire Fine Arts.

Sotheby’s released a statement, saying: “We are disappointed in today’s decision, which prevents the sales from going forward despite the carefully reasoned opinion issued by Judge Agostini earlier this week.  We have never doubted that the Board of Trustees acted in good faith and was well within their legal rights, and we remain confident that they will prevail in their plans to ensure a bright future for the Berkshire Museum in support of the community of Pittsfield and Western Massachusetts.”

Museum board president Elizabeth McGraw said in a statement: “Today’s temporary order is a disappointment for all of us at the Berkshire Museum, and it is a setback for our members, our neighbors, and the citizens of Berkshire County.  The auction that held the promise of addressing our museum’s serious financial difficulties will have to proceed without our works, and our plans for the future will be delayed pending the next steps in the legal process.  Until that process resolves, we will continue to do what we do every day: bring our passion for art, science and discovery to our community, in keeping with Zenas Crane’s vision.”

Meanwhile, an activist group called Save The Art has been protesting the sale and expressing support for the attorney general through demonstrations at the Berkshire Museum. Other events were planned for the coming days at Sotheby’s York Avenue headquarters on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It is unclear whether they will proceed in light of the new decision.

Carol Diehl, a Berkshire-based artist and critic who is acting as a spokesperson for Save the Art, told artnet News on Friday afternoon that the gathering at Sotheby’s would be the group’s fourth demonstration. At a past protest in front of the Berkshire, “we had about 100 people,” she said. The group is convening in front of Sotheby’s because “we want to show our support for the attorney general,” she noted.

Healey told the court that the injunction request is necessary because time is running out: “The sale is scheduled to begin in a matter of days, at 4 p.m. on Monday, November 13,” she wrote. She said that the judge had erred in his original decision because he misinterpreted the laws governing charitable trusts and did not fully understand that the museum was in violation of its duty to care for its collections.

Three of Rockwell’s children are named as plaintiffs in one of the two lawsuits brought against the Berkshire Museum. They expressed their own support for the attorney general on Friday.

“The Rockwell family is very pleased that the Attorney General is seeking an appeal. Norman Rockwell gave Shuffleton’s Barbershop and Shaftesbury Blacksmith Shop to the Berkshire Museum. They were given as gifts to the people of the Berkshires. They should remain in the Berkshires, as he intended, and they should be exhibited for all to enjoy,” said Margaret Rockwell, a spokesperson for the Rockwell family, in an email to artnet News.

Nicholas O’Donnell, an attorney representing one set of plaintiffs, including several members of the museum, said: “My clients are pleased that the auction has been halted. They remain alarmed at the Berkshire Museum’s treatment of its members and of the art that it holds in trust for the community. With the benefit of some breathing room and the continued investigation by the Attorney General, they are hopeful that reason will prevail.”

The Berkshire Museum’s counsel, William Hale, said in a statement before the judge’s latest ruling that “we are disappointed that the attorney general has decided to continue legal action that threatens the future of the Berkshire Museum, particularly after a very clear legal decision rejected the arguments the attorney general repeats in this misguided appeal. Continuing this litigation 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. We look forward to the swift resolution of this matter by the appeals court.”

NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect that the court granted the attorney general’s motion to temporarily halt the Berkshire Museum’s planned sale. 

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