A legal challenge to the Berkshire Museum’s plan to sell 40 valuable artworks from its collection gathered significant force Monday after the office of Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey filed court papers calling for a temporary restraining order to delay the controversial sale, slated to commence at Sotheby’s New York on Nov. 13.
The filing comes in response to a legal challenge brought by a group including sons of the artist Norman Rockwell that alleges the proposed sale would violate the Pittsfield museum’s establishing statute, break promises to donors, and breach trustees’ fiduciary obligations.
The attorney general’s office is conducting an independent review of the sale. In its response filed in Berkshire County Superior Court in Pittsfield, Healey’s office argued that a restraining order would let it complete the investigation and prevent “a violation of laws governing charitable assets.”
“Any sale of the art in question in violation of law would result in irreparable harm to the public interest,” the attorney general’s office argued. “Given the unprecedented magnitude of the planned sale, the importance of the Museum to the local, regional and national community, and the importance of charitable museums to the Commonwealth, it is paramount that the AGO be allowed to complete its investigation.”
Attorney Michael B. Keating, who represents the plaintiffs, called the response “tremendous.”
“It’s terrific to have the attorney general join us on the request,” said Keating. “She has supervisory power over these museums and what they can do.”
Museum attorney William F. Lee took issue with Healey’s response. “We respectfully disagree there is any further inquiry for the Attorney General to conduct before these long-scheduled sales can proceed,” Lee said in a statement. “For more than four months, the museum has cooperated fully in providing documents and information to the Attorney General’s Office. While the museum appreciates the time and attention given this matter by the Attorney General’s Office, we look forward to presenting the museum’s legal arguments to the court without further delay.”
Healey’s response marks the latest blow to the museum’s plan to sell artworks — including two Rockwell paintings donated by the artist — to bolster its endowment and fund renovations as part of a shift in mission toward science and history. The museum has argued that the sale — which Sotheby’s estimates could bring more than $68 million — is a financial necessity.
Healey’s filing cited the museum’s original charter, which “prohibits the museum from selling artwork acquired before 1932 outside Pittsfield.” It added that the museum “acquired 19 of the 40 works slated for sale before 1932.”
Healey’s office also questioned “whether the Museum has the authority to sell the two pieces of art that Norman Rockwell donated,” citing letters indicating they were intended to remain in the permanent collection.
The attorney general’s office argued that the museum’s plans would be “so transformative that they require court review.”
“The Berkshire Museum is important to the community and a resource for the entire state,” attorney general spokesperson Emily Snyder said in a statement. “We are hopeful that this court proceeding presents an opportunity to explore alternatives to this sale that will maintain the art collection and allow the museum to thrive in the years to come.”
Board president Elizabeth McGraw defended the museum’s actions. “We respect the role of the Attorney General in this process, but continue to believe we have strong legal grounds to move forward and secure the future of the Berkshire Museum,” said McGraw in a statement.
“We have made clear that the Board of Trustees acted consistent with its mission and the founding principles of this museum and our fiduciary responsibility. Our plan is to proceed, but these are now issues for the court to decide.”Malcolm Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @malcolmgay.