A last ditch effort by the Office of Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey to block the Berkshire Museum’s planned sale of many of its most valuable artworks was successful late Friday after a state Appeals Court granted a temporary injunction halting the sale, which was set to begin this Monday at Sotheby’s in New York.
The injunction is set to expire on Dec. 11.
Healey’s challenge came after a judge in Berkshire County sided with the museum earlier this week in a pair of lawsuits, dismissing nongovernmental plaintiffs and denying the attorney general’s request to halt the sale.
“This court should act to prevent irreparable harm,” attorneys from Healey’s office urged in their appeal, arguing that the trial court made “clear errors of law” when considering the legal challenges.
The Berkshire Museum has come under intense criticism since it announced its intention last July to sell 40 artworks from its collection — including Norman Rockwell’s “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” and “Blacksmith’s Boy — Heel and Toe (Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop)” — to help build its endowment and fund renovations as part of a shift toward science and history.
Healey’s office, which had been reviewing the proposed transaction, initially asked the trial court to halt the sale while the state completed its investigation. In their appeal Friday, lawyers for the attorney general said that although their investigation is ongoing, they believe the sale may be “in violation of the charitable trusts for which the museum holds those assets.”
“If these objects are sold, there likely will be little if any opportunity to get them back,” they argued. “Meanwhile, if the museum is able to demonstrate that it has the legal authority to sell the objects, the museum may sell the works of art at any time.”
Members of the Rockwell family — some of whom stood as plaintiffs against the museum — filed an emergency motion in support of the appeal.
“Norman Rockwell gave Shuffleton’s Barbershop and Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop to the Berkshire Museum,” Margaret Rockwell said in a statement. “They should remain in the Berkshires, as he intended, and they should be exhibited for all to enjoy.”
William F. Lee, an attorney for the museum, said the lower court’s decision should stand.
“We are disappointed that the attorney general has decided to continue legal action that threatens the future of the Berkshire Museum, particularly after a very clear legal decision rejected the arguments the attorney general repeats in this misguided appeal,” Lee said in a statement before the Appeals Court’s ruling.
“Prior to the expiration of the injunction,” the court wrote, “the Attorney General’s Office may move to extend the injunction with a date certain by which the investigation will be completed.”Malcolm Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay