In 2017, the Berkshire Museum was sued multiple times because of the possible sales of 40 works of art at public auctions. The art has long left the building. The winning consignor, Sotheby’s auction house, received all property prior to the 2017 public announcement from museum leadership blowing its “New Vision” horn. The art remains on hold at Sotheby’s.
At high noon on March 20, 2018, in Courtroom 2 of the John Adams Courthouse in Boston, Massachusetts, Justice David Lowy presided over the ongoing Berkshire Museum deaccession litigation. Four attorneys, two for each side, were summoned before the Massachusetts Supreme Court to argue positions. Justice Lowy began the hearing by addressing the elephant in the room. He announced that because the Attorney General Office and the Berkshire Museum, former adversaries, petitioned the court together for necessary relief, he thought it was important to hear opposing views. Therefore, he invited amici to present their arguments, too.
(A third amicus brief by a former director of Museum Services at Bonhams auction house, Martin Gammon, has since been filed and is under review.)
Naturally, this hearing was welcome news for opponents of the museum’s plans to liquidate a priceless core collection in favor of a makeover, still reeling from their perception that the Attorney General abdicated mightily February 9, 2018. Trustees, who believe the museum is broke and will shutter any day if not for this new strategy, were disheartened but determined.
Justice Lowy made the stunning announcement upfront that restrictions do apply, and are a given. The Office of the Attorney General (AGO) and the Supreme Court agree about standing. The museum maintains it has the right to liquidate. The only way that any art can be sold is if the legal contracts pertaining to the Berkshire Museum’s charter and mission and provenance for the art are abandoned because the museum successfully conveys its pending demise. Then it gets a do-over. The legal term is cy pres (pronounced say, pray. I prefer pray stay!)
IF sold, Norman Rockwell’s Shuffleton’s Barbershop, which has crystal clear provenance, was estimated to fetch the highest price at auction. Inexplicably, the petition before the court boasted of a breezy compromise between the AGO and Berkshire Museum: an anonymous museum will purchase the painting for 1)an undisclosed price (I guarantee that it’s less than public auction), 2) promises a temporary display in Massachusetts, at the Norman Rockwell Museum, and 3)eventually feature it as part of the mystery museum’s permanent collection. Where is the museum? What is the sale price and terms? If its destiny is beyond a Massachusetts border, why isn’t the Commonwealth protecting its resources?*
*Which museum committed funds for Shuffleton Barbershop and can afford to pounce and avoid driving up the price at auction? Perhaps Crystal Bridges Museum backed by Wal-Mart heiress, Alice Walton, could strike again. Norman Rockwell is already represented in its collection. Is it worth it to add another? The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art could be a contender. George Lucas boasts an impressive Rockwell collection, including ideal examples with cinematic connections or narratives, like the stunning study for charwomen (in movie theater). Is that enough representation to let it go were Berkshire Museum Rockwells cleared to sell?
The other works of art could be sold, or not. One doesn’t get the impression that the AGO was stepping in for the underdog. Leave it to Norman Rockwell to capture the attention of a busy world to illustrate a simple maxim: do the right thing. If legal manuevering is necessary, like crazy zoning variances for unfair construction, most collections will be at a disadvantage. It’s up to the Massachusetts Supreme Court to remedy this balderdash & betrayal else risk breaking the bank of non profits across the country.
Justice Lowy asked that the attorneys focus their arguments on selling with restrictions: “Is it necessary and impossible or impracticable for the Museum’s charitable mission to continue?” All parties stuck to this request, and to their filed briefs more or less. I tried to capture word for word the moments when Justice Lowy interrupted rote statements. Justice Lowy has made no decisions, yet. Eventually, he will decide whether to allow the parties’ petition, deny it, or reserve and report which means bringing the case back to the full court.
Proponents side or Opponents side?
Upon arrival, where to sit at the courtroom felt like where to sit at a wedding. The Berkshire Museum Trustees, Director Van Shields, and those in favor of the Berkshire Museum deaccession sale sat together on the left side of the courtroom. Opponents, numbering 2:1, sat in the center, off to the right, and spilled into the hall. With every available chair claimed some were left standing in the back.
Up first – Attorney Nicholas M. O’Donnell
of Sullivan & Worcester LLP law firm and Erika Todd on behalf of ‘Berkshire Museum Member Plaintiffs’: James Hatt, Kristin Hatt, and Elizabeth Weinberg
O’Donnell excerpt- “Massachusetts stands alone, this decision puts Massachusetts alone …That this court, this petition, this hearing, may be the ONLY obstacle left to account for this action should be unimaginable. IF a conclusory report of operational deficits can support the liquidation for the sale…Make no mistake, I say the art market is watching–”
Justice Lowy cut in- “Maybe they are. I’ve certainly read your key points, Maybe not. Systemic issues that flow from this are not my focus…”