With just weeks to go before Sotheby’s offers works from the Berkshire Museum on the auction block, Norman Rockwell’s three sons and other plaintiffs have filed suit against the Pittsfield, Massachusetts, institution in Massachusetts Superior Court, aiming to halt the sell-off by obtaining a temporary restraining order.
Among the complaint’s arguments is that, under state law, the museum does not have the authority to deaccession the works, that the decision to dispose of the art violates the intent of donors, and that the trustees of the museum did not exercise the proper care and diligence in assessing the institution’s fiscal status and crafting their plan.
The board’s president, Elizabeth McGraw, said in a statement shared by a spokesperson, “We believe we have strong legal grounds for our deaccessioning and we are confident in our New Vision plan which will allow this important local museum to continue to contribute to the educational and cultural life of this region for another century.” The museum’s attorney, William F. Lee of the firm WilmerHales, called the suit “factually and legally flawed” in a statement. Sotheby’s said in a statement of its own that it “is confident that the claims are legally and factually flawed,” and that the museum’s board, whose trustees are the target of the suit, “acted in accordance with its fiduciary duties and that the museum is well within its rights to deaccession and offer these works for sale.”
The Berkshire Museum’s leadership announced in July that it would sell 40 works from its collection, a move that is estimated to raise around $50 million, with the aim of building its endowment, renovating the museum, and pursuing a “New Vision” plan that would see the institution focus more on technology-driven exhibitions pertaining to science and nature.
Michael Keating, a partner at the Boston firm Foley Hoag, which is handling the case, said that “statutes that created the museum and the Atheneum do not permit this sale” and that the move violates the stated purpose of the museum. The museum’s board members, he added, “never let the public know that they were going to sell the art until they signed the contract with Sotheby’s.”
The Rockwell sons involved in the suit are Thomas Rockwell, Jarvis Rockwell, and Peter Rockwell. Peter’s wife, Margaret, said earlier this week in an interview, “What is happening is that the Berkshire Museum is breaking Norman Rockwell’s trust, and the public trust at the same time, and hurting the reputation of the people of the Berkshires, and it’s a bad precedent for museums all over.”
The other plaintiffs in the case are Tom Patti, who has a work on the grounds of the museum that would be moved as a result of the “New Vision” plan—an act that he says is forbidden in his contract for them—and James Lamme, Donald MacGillis, Jonas Dovydenas, and Jean Rousseau, who live in the Berkshires and are members of the museum.
Museum organizations, including the Association of Art Museum Directors and the Alliance of American Museums, have argued strongly against the sale. Professional guidelines generally forbid the sale of artworks, except in order to acquire other pieces, and museum leaders have said that the sale could create an example that other institutions may be tempted to follow instead of following sustainable fundraising practices.
The case is scheduled to be heard on November 1.
“I think this could have national ramifications,” Keating said. “It certainly has Massachusetts ramifications.”
Update, 7:15 p.m.: Comments from the museum’s president and attorney were added to this post.