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Berkshire Museum artworks cleared for sale

Michael Lavin Flower/File

A Berkshire Superior Court Judge John Agostini found that the plaintiffs — which included sons of the artist Norman Rockwell — did not have standing to pursue the case against the Berkshire Museum (above).

By Globe Staff 

The Berkshire Museum can move ahead with a planned sale of artworks after a state judge ruled in its favor Tuesday and halted a pair of legal challenges that sought to stop the sale.

Berkshire Superior Court Judge John Agostini found that the plaintiffs — which included sons of the artist Norman Rockwell, the artist Tom Patti, and museum members — did not have standing to pursue the case.

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Agostini, who after a hearing last week had granted plaintiff status to the office of Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey in one of the actions, also denied the attorney general’s bid to halt the sale.

“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,” wrote Agostini, who dismissed the non-governmental plaintiffs. “However, it is the responsibility of the court to act dispassionately and decide cases solely on the legal merits of the claims presented.”

The Berkshire Museum has come under withering criticism after it announced its intention last summer to sell 40 of its most cherished artworks from its collection — including Rockwell’s “Shuffleton’s Barbershop,” considered by many to be his masterpiece — to bolster its endowment and fund renovations as part of a shift in emphasis toward science and history.

The museum has argued that the sale — set to commence Nov. 13 through a series of auctions at Sotheby’s — is a matter of financial necessity. Plaintiffs had argued that the proposed sale would violate the Pittsfield museum’s establishing statute, break promises to donors, and breach trustees’ fiduciary obligations.

Elizabeth McGraw, president of the museum’s board of trustees, said the ruling vindicated the board’s decision to sell the artworks.

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“[W]e acted consistent with our responsibility to this community and our collections, to keep this museum open now and strengthen it for generations to come,” McGraw said in a statement. “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.”

Michael Keating, who represented a group of plaintiffs that included Rockwell’s children, called the ruling “a huge loss to the community.”

“We are disappointed our clients and others who are Berkshire County residents will no longer have an opportunity to see this treasured art,” he said in statement. “We are especially disappointed on behalf of the Rockwell family whose father was promised his paintings would always remain home and be shown in Berkshire County.”

Attorney Nicholas O’Donnell, who represented another group of the plaintiffs, said his clients had “certainly hoped for a different outcome.”

A spokesperson for Sotheby’s, which has been displaying some of the works in advance of next week’s sale, said they were pleased “the court reaffirmed that the board of trustees acted in good faith and fulfilled its fiduciary duties.”

A spokesperson for Healey said the attorney general’s office was reviewing the decision.


Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @malcolmgay.