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Members of Berkshire Museum File Suit Seeking Injunction Against Sale of Art Collection

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on October 26, 2017 at 11:52 AM

Forty Masterpieces of American and European Art Scheduled for Auction

(Boston, MA, October 26, 2017)  Sullivan & Worcester LLP has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Berkshire County residents and members of the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, seeking an immediate injunction against the museum’s planned sale of art early next month.  The Berkshire Museum has consigned forty paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts for auction or sale at Sotheby’s in violation of universally accepted museum ethics—including Shuffleton’s Barbershop and Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop by Norman Rockwell on or before November 13, 2017.  The loss of these works would represent an irreparable loss for the community and Massachusetts.  A hearing will be held on November 1, 2017, and the papers in support can be found here.

The Berkshire Museum abruptly announced that it intended to sell the artwork in question, removing them from public view where they were intended to be in perpetuity.  With no apparent regard for the purpose for which these works were donated to the museum, the Berkshire Museum instead proposes to comingle the sale proceeds with its operating budget,  but nonprofit museum collections are held in trust to benefit the public through exhibitions, publications, research and public programs.  The proposed liquidation is also a violation of the explicit restrictions placed on the museum when it was created. 

The Plaintiffs are representatives of a class of current and former members of the Museum who oppose  the Berkshire Museum’s reckless decision.  After the announcement of the planned sale, they reached out to the museum’s representatives to seek an understanding of why the Museum would decimate the core of its painting collection and the very reason patrons of visual art support and visit it.  Rather than explain its process, the museum simply ignored its members and has cut off all dialogue.  After the Plaintiffs demanded that the museum stop the scheduled auction, the Berkshire Museum flatly refused, leaving the Plaintiffs with no choice but to file this lawsuit seeking an immediate injunction to halt the sale of the works of art.

“The Berkshire Museum’s planned sale of the most important works of visual art in its collection was announced without any meaningful opportunity for its members or the community to participate in the decision or voice their concerns, an opportunity that the museum held out as an inducement to join as members,” said Nicholas M. O’Donnell of Sullivan & Worcester LLP, the attorney for the Plaintiffs who filed the Complaint.  “Repeated experience shows that this disastrous sale will have none of the benefits claimed by the museum’s management, and will lead to the ruin of the institution.  The sale would harm the museum and its members irreparably and we have asked the Court to put the sale on hold.  We are pleased that the Court accepted the case and will hear argument on the injunction request next week.”

Initially chartered by statute in 1871, the legislature placed geographic restrictions on the collection of what was then known as the Athenaeum, requiring its display within Pittsfield.  Paper manufacturer Zenas Crane and his family endowed it with its land and significant artwork in the early 20th century.  The legislature chartered the entity that now constitutes the museum in 1932 as the Trustees of the Berkshire Museum. 

The artwork proposed for sale includes masterpieces by Norman Rockwell and Frederic Edwin Church, and by several members of the Hudson River School whose work is inextricably connected to the Hudson River watershed in which Pittsfield is located.  Shuffleton’s Barbershop is widely considered Rockwell’s greatest work.

The Berkshire Museum announced what it termed a “New Vision” in June 2017, pointing to the sale proceeds of the artwork as the financial foundation of its plans.  Independent financial experts have examined the supposed fiscal need and determined that the Museum could sustain itself on an endowment a fraction of the one that it claims it needs the sale to realize, without the harmful collateral effects of the sale of art. 

Similarly, the professional museum community is overwhelmingly opposed to the Berkshire Museum’s plan to sell art to support operations and capital improvements.  Monetizing the Berkshire Museum’s extremely important collection of American art will assure that all or most of the works will disappear into private hands while concurrently corroding the financial underpinnings of American museums and compromising trust in their integrity. 

Topics: Norman Rockwell, Sullivan & Worcester LLP, Sotheby's, Nicholas M. O'Donnell, Pittsfield, Zenas Crane, Trustees of the Berkshire Museum, Hudson River School, Frederic Edwin Church, Pieter de Hooch, Shuffleton’s Barbershop, Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop

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The Art Law Report provides timely updates and commentary on legal issues in the museum and visual arts communities. It is authored by Nicholas M. O'Donnell, partner in our Art & Museum Law Practice.

The material on this site is for general information only and is not legal advice. No liability is accepted for any loss or damage which may result from reliance on it. Always consult a qualified lawyer about a specific legal problem.

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