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Berkshire Museum Wins Legal Battle over Plan to Sell Artworks

After five months of litigation, the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, has been given the green light to sell as many as forty works of art from its collection. The institution has faced backlash over its plan to deaccession works since it announced last summer that it would auction pieces by Norman Rockwell, Alexander Calder, and Francis Picabia at Sotheby’s in New York in order to increase its endowment and fund a renovation.

In a six-page ruling, Justice David Lowy of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court approved an agreement between the museum and the attorney general that was submitted in February. The deal allows the Berkshire Museum to move forward with its sale of the works, but also stipulates that once it raises $55 million it cannot sell any more art. The institution must also sell Rockwell’s Shuffleton’s Barbershop, 1950—which the artist personally gifted to the Berkshire—to an undisclosed US museum where it will be kept on prominent display.

Lowy acknowledged the “legitimate concerns” of those who opposed the sale, but ultimately decided to allow it. He argued that if the Berkshire Museum were forced to close because it lacked the funds necessary to operate then it would no longer be able to fulfill its mission of serving the public. However, he did urge the institution to attempt to secure more arrangements similar to the one it made for the Rockwell painting. “As the Amici have argued, art is best preserved for the benefit of the many, not the few highest bidders,” he wrote.

Commenting on the ruling, Elizabeth McGraw, the chairman of the Berkshire Museum’s board of trustees, said: “We recognize this decision may not please those who have opposed the museum’s plans. Still, we hope people will be able to move forward in a constructive way to help us secure and strengthen the future of this museum, at a time when our community needs it more than ever.”

For those opposed to the deaccession plan, the judgment was a major setback. Michael Keating, an attorney representing a group of people who tried to halt the sale, told Artnews in an interview that “the precedent here is, frankly, disastrous.” He added, “I’m hopeful that other museums around the state won’t look at this as a license to monetize their collection and avoid the hard work of fundraising.”