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Massachusetts Court Rules in Favor of Berkshire Museum’s Deaccession of Artworks

The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, will be allowed to move forward with its plan to sell forty artworks from its collection in a series of auctions at Sotheby’s, Larry Parnass of the Berkshire Eagle reports. The first group of works to be sold, including Shuffleton Barbershop—a Norman Rockwell painting expected to net $30 million—will be featured in a sale on Monday, November 13.

In a twenty-five page decision, a Massachusetts judge, John Agostini, ruled that the two lawsuits that had been previously filed by Norman Rockwell’s sons and current and former museum members in an attempt to halt the sale lacked legal standing. He also questioned the motives behind the Attorney General’s Office last-minute effort to stop the sale by adding the office as a plaintiff on one of the complaints.

“It is bewildering that the AGO would seek such an injunction, at such a cost, when its investigation has uncovered no evidence of bad faith, no conflict of interest, no breach of loyalty, no express gift restrictions, and yielded unconvincing evidence of implied gift restrictions or a breach of reasonable care,” Agostini wrote.

The decision is a triumph for the 114-year-old South Street museum, which first announced that it planned to deaccession the artworks in order to secure its financial footing in July. According to museum officials, the Berkshire would have to close its doors within eight years if it did not find a way to get out of the red. The museum has been operating with a million-dollar yearly deficit.

“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,” Elizabeth McGraw, board president, said in the statement. “Zenas Crane created this museum to provide his less well-traveled neighbors with what he termed ‘a window on the world.’ We're working to keep that window open.”

Commenting on the ruling, Sotheby’s issued the following statement: “We are looking forward to successful auctions beginning next week that will ensure a bright future for the Berkshire Museum in support of the community of Pittsfield and Western Massachusetts.” 

The judge acknowledged that critics of the sale, including the Save the Art-Save the Museum group, which had been fundraising to cover the legal costs of the lawsuits, may be disappointed. At the conclusion of his ruling, he wrote: “This may very well mean that timeless works by an iconic, local artist will be lost to the public in less than a week’s time. No doubt many will be disappointed in this outcome, and they may take little comfort knowing that, in their loss, the rights of a charitable board to make thoughtful decisions to steer its charity through troubled times have been vindicated.  However, it is the responsibility of the court to act dispassionately and decide cases solely on the legal merits of the claims presented.”