WNPR

Berkshire Museum Is Cleared By Judge To Sell Artwork At Auction

Nov 8, 2017
Originally published on November 8, 2017 4:59 pm

The Berkshire Museum won a legal battle on Tuesday, allowing it go ahead with a planned auction next week of a host of art works, including two paintings by Norman Rockwell.

Berkshire Superior Court Judge John Agostini denied an injunction to block the sale.

The plaintiffs, including some of Norman Rockwell’s children, argued in court last week the financially troubled museum did not have to right to sell the art. It cited laws establishing the museum, the rights of its members and even the intentions of Norman Rockwell itself.

The office of the Massachusetts attorney general, Maura Healey, also joined in on the suit.

In his written decision, Agostini ruled the plaintiffs did not have legal standing to pursue the case, and that belonged only to the attorney general. The judge then wrote that the AG’s office failed to demonstrate the auction would violate the state’s charitable laws.

Agostini called the attorney general’s office a “reluctant warrior” in the case, saying he didn’t believe Healey would have taken action at all had the plaintiffs not filed suit first.

“Indeed, the AGO’s initial indifference to this litigation, compounded with its later faint-heartedness, strongly suggest that the AGO, too, has little expectation of discovering evidence supporting its concerns,” Agostini wrote. “The public’s interest in having the AGO continue its tepid investigation pales in comparison to the public interest in ensuring that a public charity does not needlessly lose potentially millions of dollars by canceling a contract that it has every right to make.”

As for any appeal, that decision would fall to Healey, as Agostini dismissed the rest of the plaintiffs. Reached early Tuesday evening, a spokeswoman for the AG said the office was reviewing the case.

One of the plaintiffs, attorney Jim Lamme, called the decision “disastrous” and said it could have consequences for the museum industry across the country. He was hopeful Healey’s office would pursue an appeal.

“I think better minds will hear this case and probably will decide it differently,” Lamme said.

The Berkshire Museum plans to use proceeds from the sale for its self-proclaimed “new vision.” Officials are looking to fund up to $40 million in renovations and boost its endowment by $20 million. They have argued the museum could not survive otherwise.

“We believe we acted consistent with our responsibility to this community and our collections, to keep this museum open now and strengthen it for generations to come,” said Elizabeth McGraw, president of the Berkshire Museum’s Board of Trustees. “We are grateful the Judge recognized the care and diligence the Board exercised in arriving at this decision, and that today’s decision will ensure we can move forward.”

The Rockwell paintings, “Shuffleton’s Barber Shop” and “Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop,” are headlining the auction. It is scheduled to begin Monday at Sotheby’s in New York City.

Copyright 2017 New England Public Radio. To see more, visit New England Public Radio.