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Protesters outside Sotheby’s before its American Art sale on May 23. Photo: Save the Art—Save the Museum.

Berkshire Museum Falls Short of $55 Million Goal after First Round of Auctions

On the morning of Wednesday, May 23, people with signs gathered outside of Sotheby’s New York in a last-ditch effort to prevent the controversial sale of art from the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. They read: “Unethical deaccessions steal our children’s legacy,” “#artheist,” and “Is your museum next?”

Despite the backlash over the institution’s decision to sell works from its collection in order to fund a renovation project and become financially stable, the museum entered four works into the Sotheby’s American art auction, which kicked off at 10 AM. Three of the four works were sold, including Norman Rockwell’s Blacksmith’s Boy, Heel and Toe, 1940, which netted $8.1 million, squeaking by the low end of its estimate ($7 million to $10 million); John La Farge’s Magnolia, 1860, which brought in $262,500; and Rembrandt Peale’s portrait of George Washington, which sold for $225,000.

The three works realized $8.6 million. If you add the hammer price for the eight other pieces that were sold in auctions held earlier this month and the undisclosed sum from a private deal, through which George Lucas’s new Los Angeles museum purchased Rockwell’s iconic Shuffleton’s Barbershop, 1950, the Berkshire has raised $42 million. The sum is $13 million short of the museum’s goal of $55 million.

“These auctions move the Berkshire Museum important steps forward by providing resources needed to secure the museum’s future,” Elizabeth McGraw, president of the institution’s board of trustees, said in a statement. Because of the unpredicitable nature of the art market, she said the museum was “disappointed but not surprised” that it did not meet its goal.

According to an agreement reached between the Berkshire and the Massachusetts Attorney General after a lengthy legal battle, the institution can sell up to forty works to bring in more funds. “We will take time now to consider how we will proceed, through possible auction and private sale, to gain the additional resources needed,” McGraw said.

[Update:]

On May 25, Andrew Russeth of Artnews reported that Frederic Edwin Church’s 1875 painting of a South American valley, which failed to sell at the Sotheby’s American art auction on May 23, was acquired by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia through a private sale. The purchase price of the piece was not disclosed. 

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