Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey will not oppose the Berkshire Museum’s controversial sale of up to 40 artworks the cash-strapped institution says it must sell to remain financially solvent.
In a joint request filed Friday with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, attorneys from the museum and Healey’s office asked the court to authorize the museum to sell some or all of the 40 works, ending a legal dispute that began last fall.
According to the agreement, an unnamed US museum has agreed to purchase Norman Rockwell’s “Shuffleton’s Barbershop,” widely considered one of the painter’s masterpieces, with the condition that the work be exhibited for up to two years at the Norman Rockwell Museum, in nearby Stockbridge, soon after the sale.
The accord also stipulates a sales structure for the other 39 artworks, authorizing the museum to raise up to $55 million at auction — a cap that may be reached before all 40 works are sold. Among the artists are Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, and Albert Bierstadt.
“This agreement helps secure the future of the Berkshire Museum for years to come, while preserving ‘Shuffleton’s Barbershop’ for public view, in keeping with the wishes of Norman Rockwell,” Healey said in a statement. “We are pleased that this agreement will allow the Berkshire Museum to thrive, ensures that no more art than necessary will be sold, and honors the legacy of Norman Rockwell and his masterpiece, ‘Shuffleton’s Barbershop.’ ”
Berkshire Museum attorney William Lee said the museum would begin selling the remaining 39 works in three separate “tranches,” reporting all proceeds to Healey’s office.
“The AG will be in the position to determine whether there can be a second tranche and a third tranche,” said Lee.
He added that the agreement authorizes the museum to use $50 million in net proceeds to fortify its endowment and refurbish the building as part of a broader shift toward science and history. He said that any proceeds between $50 million and $55 million would be used “for the collection and the administration of the collection.”
The Pittsfield museum has come under blistering attack since it announced last July that it intended to sell the artworks to help bankroll a $60 million reinvention plan..
Both the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors quickly denounced the decision, arguing the proposed sale would violate the public trust, undermining other museums’ abilities to attract donations as part of its efforts to collect and preserve artworks.
Similarly, the Massachusetts Cultural Council urged the museum to reverse course, placing a hold on a $22,000 grant to the Pittsfield museum.
The museum argued the sale was a financial necessity — an assessment some independent analysts had questioned — moving last fall to sell the works through Sotheby’s auction house, which estimated they could fetch more than $65 million.
A group that included Rockwell’s heirs and Healey unsuccessfully petitioned a state judge to block the sale in the weeks leading up to the auction.
In November a state appeals court granted a last-minute injunction to Healey’s office, which requested more time to complete its investigation into the sale’s legality.
The attorney general’s office completed its review earlier this week, inspecting some 1,500 documents. It confirmed the museum’s dire financial situation and the need to modify restrictions both on selling the works and how the proceeds could be used.
While critics had characterized the entire sale as a breach of trust, particular attention has been focused on “Shuffleton’s Barbershop,” which was estimated at $20 million to $30 million, and a second Rockwell, “Blacksmith’s Boy — Heel and Toe (Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop),” which was estimated at $7 million to $10 million. Rockwell himself donated the pieces to the museum.
“While the negotiated agreement with the Berkshire Museum may satisfy legal standards, it falls far short of ethical standards and best practices for museums,” the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors said in a joint statement. “This is indeed a sad day for the arts community in the Berkshires and the museum community across the country.”
The museum declined to disclose the sales price and identity of the American museum that has agreed to purchase “Shuffleton’s Barbershop.” But Lee said the anonymous museum will consider loaning the work to other Massachusetts institutions and has agreed to keep the work on view in a prominent place.
“[T]his agreement is the promise of a long future for our small but extraordinary museum and its collection,” said Elizabeth McGraw, president of the museum’s board of trustees. “We are pleased a museum buyer was identified who will not only bring this painting to the public but will respect the unique connection of Berkshire County to Norman Rockwell.”Malcolm Gay can be reached at email@example.com.