After a Massachusetts judge issued a twenty-five-page decision last week ruling that the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, could move forward with its plan to sell forty works from its collection, the Massachusetts Appeals Court passed an injunction blocking the auction, which was expected to take place today at Sotheby’s, Colin Moynihan reports in the New York Times.
On Friday, November 10, the office of the Massachusetts attorney general asked the court for an injunction postponing the sale, which it said would violate various trusts and restrictions related to how the works must be handled. The attorney general, Maura Healey, was seeking additional time to evaluate the museum’s plan. The office joined the sons of artist Norman Rockwell and a number of former and current museum members as plaintiffs in two lawsuits that claim that the museum’s deaccession of the works is unethical.
The Berkshire Museum has faced backlash since it first announced last summer that it would auction off a number of artworks, including a few Rockwell paintings gifted to the museum by the artist. The motivation behind this unusual initiative is to secure its financesthe museum has been operating with a $1 million annual deficit over the past couple of yearsand to raise funds for the institution’s endowment and renovation costs. It has been criticized over this move by many members of the arts community, including the American Alliance of Museums, the Association of Art Museum Directors, and the Association of Art Museum Curators, and it has even ended its affiliation with the Smithsonian Institution because of the controversy.
In its decision, the appellate court declared that allowing the sale created more of a risk than stopping it. The ruling specifically prohibits the museum “from selling, auctioning or otherwise disposing of any of the artworks that have been listed for auction.” The new injunction will expire on December 11, but the court added that the attorney general’s office may move to extend it.
Among the works headed to the auction were Rockwell’s Shuffleton’s Barbershop, 1950, which Sotheby’s said the artist created for the cover of an issue of the Saturday Evening Post that year, and Blacksmith’s BoyHeel and Toe (Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop), 1940. The works were expected to fetch an estimated $20 to $30 million and $7 million to $10 million, respectively. Other works that would have been on the block are The White Dress, 1921, by Thomas Wilmer Dewing; Hunter in Winter Wood, 1860, by George Henry Durrie; and Connecticut River Valley, Claremont, New Hampshire, 1868, by Albert Bierstadt. Officials from the museum and from Sotheby’s said they were disappointed by the decision.