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Massachusetts Attorney General Attempts to Halt Berkshire Museum’s Sale of Artworks

After generating controversy for their plan to auction about forty artworks from the museum’s collection in order to raise funds for its renovation and endowment, the Berkshire Museum in Massachusetts is facing a new challenge: The state attorney general’s office has submitted a legal filing that calls on a court to grant a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction so that its office can take more time to study the case and come to a final position on the matter. This latest report comes from Andrew Russeth at Artnews, but the state of Massachusetts has been reviewing the matter since last August. The filing, which claims to have “significant questions and concerns,” comes at a time that seems chiefly designed to delay the sale of the museum’s works, which is scheduled to take place on November 13 at Sotheby’s in New York.

Two of the works in the proposed group for sale are by Norman Rockwell, a fact which the artist’s family has been less than enthusiastic about. The attorney general’s office cited potential evidence in its filing that nineteen of the works to be offered through Sotheby’s cannot be sold under the terms of an 1871 charter, and that the Rockwell works are protected by the intent of the artist when he donated them to the institution. The legal filing also submits that the museum board’s ambitious plan to reorient itself to focus more on science and technology-driven displays violates the museum’s founding principles and would require court approval.

William F. Lee, who is representing the museum, said in a statement: “We respectfully disagree there is any further inquiry for the Attorney General to conduct before these long-scheduled sales can proceed . . . For more than four months, the museum has cooperated fully in providing documents and information to the Attorney General’s Office.” A spokesperson for the auction house noted, “Sotheby’s is fully committed to the museum’s success, and, unless a court rules otherwise, will proceed with the auctions beginning on November 13th.”

The museum and Sotheby’s have said they will be harmed if the auction does not go through, owing to costs related to marketing the work and the possibility that the art market may later soften. But the attorney general’s office says that these are “problems that were created by the Museum itself.” The state agency says that it was not notified of the Berkshire Museum board’s plan to sell works until after it had signed a contract with Sotheby’s. The museum itself has possibly already been harmed, given its recent disassociation from the Smithsonian Institution, a gesture that the Berkshire Museum made “because we knew the decision to deaccession art to fund an endowment would not be in compliance with the American Alliance of Museums’ guidelines for the use of proceeds,” according to Van Shields, the museum’s executive director.