2016: Berkshire Museum trustees use two board retreats to discuss institution’s future, including possible sale of artworks. Museum files new corporation papers with the Secretary of State’s Office. Using language taken directly from state law, the organization says, among other things, that it holds the right to “sell, convey, lease, exchange, transfer or otherwise dispose of all or any of its property ….”
Spring 2017: Museum board authorizes its president, Elizabeth McGraw, and Museum Executive Director Van Shields to sign consignment contract with Sotheby’s for 40 works of art, which they do in June.
June 22: Museum attorney Mark Gold notifies attorney general in a letter of plan to sell 40 works of art from collection, saying none of the works is under restriction. He says auction proceeds could be as high as $75 million.
July 11: Museum’s Collections Committee meets to change its policies, eliminating a requirement that it first offer works being culled from its holdings to other museums and allowing it to use sale proceeds for operations expenses. Committee votes to approve deaccession of 40 works; minutes released by Museum show no discussion of issue.
July 12:Museum officials announce plan to sell 40 works from the collection and use proceeds to build an endowment to ensure financial stability and to pursue building renovations related to its “New Vision” project to emphasize multimedia and interactive exhibits focusing on science and natural history.
Late July: Three national museum groups oppose plan to use auction proceeds for project and endowment. They include the Association of Art Museum Curators, the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Alliance of Museums.
September 20: Massachusetts Cultural Council asks museum leaders to halt sale of artworks; group suspends its fiscal year 2018 funding to museum. Council’s executive director, Anita Walker, calls museum’s plan a “violation” of the public trust.
October 20: Group of plaintiffs, including three sons of artist Norman Rockwell and Pittsfield artist Tom Patti, files a civil lawsuit seeking an injunction halting the sale. Suit names attorney general as a part of interest, compelling that office to file a response.
Sotheby’s devotes 33 of 188 pages in an online catalog to the first sale of works linked to the museum’s New Vision project. Sotheby’s schedules show that only 19 of original 40 works have scheduled sale dates.
October 24: Shields, the Museum’s executive director, begins a medical leave for surgery on a heart valve and will be absent through rest of year, Museum announces. Nina Garlington and Craig Langlois will act as co-executive directors during Shields’ absence.
October 26: Second group of plaintiffs, made up of three residents of Lenox, files suit in Suffolk Superior Court also seeking injunction; the cases are combined.
November 7: Agostini denies request for injunction and criticizes attorney general for handling of its review of the deaccession and sale.
November 10: Attorney general seeks and secures preliminary injunction from Massachusetts Appeals Court. The 30-day order bars the art sale, forcing seven Berkshire Museum works to be pulled from a scheduled Nov. 13 auction in New York City. Other works are also removed from three other auctions that week.
November 20: State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, praises Museum trustees for taking bold action but says they might need to consider compromise; urges parties to find common ground.
Justice Joseph A. Trainor clarifies that all proceedings in Berkshire Superior Court are on hold.
Albert Bierstadt – Giant Redwood Trees of California, 1874
Rembrandt Peale – George Washington, 1795
November and early December: The Museum and sale opponents file multiple motions with the Massachusetts Appeals Court. The Museum seeks speedy trial at the Superior Court level. Opponents back higher-court review.
December 13: Trainor extends injunction through Jan. 29. “These delays benefit no one,” said William F. Lee of the Boston law firm WilmerHale. “It is ironic that, during this holiday season when the Museum is visited and enjoyed by more families than ever, its future is placed in grave jeopardy.”
December 18: Appeals Court does not grant the Museum’s request to lift the prohibition on Superior Court action. It also denies the museum’s bid to expedite the appeal, which normally takes many months to more than a year to play out.
December 26: Shields returns from his medical leave on a part-time basis.
Ahead: On or before Wednesday, the Attorney General’s Office is due to file a status report to the Appeals Court on its investigation.
Timeline on how Berkshire Museum trustees managed choices on art sales
February 5: Trustees review and approve the plan reached with Healey’s staff to end months of litigation and instead seek court approval for sales.
February 7: Board begins discussing works to sell, anticipating approval from the Supreme Judicial Court for Suffolk County, which came April 5. Trustee President Elizabeth McGraw briefs the board on terms of the agreement. The museum must consider the interpretive value of works as well as their possible sale prices. Trustees review likely values of 39 works that can be sold; Norman Rockwell’s “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” is to be sold to a private museum, later identified publicly as the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles.
Trustees also identified a group of works to attempt to retain for the collection. In the following days, museum staff assessed works for possible sale “using a scheme based primarily on interpretive value,” according to an April 10 report to Healey’s office.
February 14: Trustees hold the first of two meetings with finance and collections committees. The agenda focuses on making a final selection of works to sell in a first group, still pending court approval.
William Bouguereau – Les deux soeurs (La Bourrique), 1884
March 7: Trustees meet again with the finance and collections committees. Participants produce a list of 15 works to include in what becomes a series of May sales and auctions.
March 26: Board members pick works for initial sales. “The Board assessed options for raising the needed funds while retaining works with relatively high interpretive value,” the museum reported to Healey.
One vote backs including 13 works. A second vote authorizes McGraw to add two paintings to the first sales, if needed as a result of revised auction estimates and less-than-expected net proceeds from the sale of “Shuffleton’s Barbershop.” In the end, the paintings were not included. They were Jan Victor’s “Benjamin and His Brethren” and Benjamin West’s “Daniel Interpreting to Belshazzar the Handwriting on the Wall.”
Also on March 26, trustees discuss the goal of keeping works accessible to the public through sales. Trustees back the idea, “but also expressed the concern that selling works subject to such restrictions would significantly reduce sale value and require the Museum to sell a greater number of works .” the institution informed Healey. Trustees agreed to ask Sotheby’s to relay offers from buyers willing to commit to public displays.
April 5: Associate Justice David A. Lowy issues his ruling approving of the agreement. Trustees meet that day to discuss the decision. They again debate the issue of public art displays by buyers and agree to ask Sotheby’s to take steps to foster such sales. (In April and May, Sotheby’s staff members contact more than 150 institutions offering special access and terms for purchases.)
April 19: The trustees’ Finance Committee creates a subcommittee to expand the museum’s business plan, including hiring a consultant to be found through a competitive bidding process.
May 14: A series of Sotheby’s auctions of Berkshire Museum works begins.
May 23: Sales end with 12 of 13 works being sold by auction or private transaction. Net proceeds from those sales and “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” come to $47 million.
June 7: Trustees discuss the shortfall from expected proceeds. The board reaffirms a wish to get the full $55 million allowed by the agreement. Trustees instruct staff to select works for a second batch of sales and, in doing so, to consider both financial and interpretive values.
June 11: Staff finishes its research, which included contact with Sotheby’s about works most likely to be sought by public institutions. On the same day, Collections Committee approved the staff’s choice of nine works to sell.
June 12: Trustees unanimously approve the works chosen for a second batch of sales, marking seven for private transactions and two Asian works for a September auction.
Norman Rockwell – Shuffleton’s Barbershop, 1950
Rockwell donated two paintings to the Berkshire Museum — “Shuffleton’s” in 1959 and “Blacksmith Shop” in 1966
SAVE THE ART (STA) A grassroots citizens group established in 2017 with the intent of stopping the sale of the Berkshire Museum’s treasured art collection in order to find an alternate solution to its continued financial shortfall.
The mission of Save the Art is to advocate for and protect the Public Trust — the art and objects belonging to all of us that document humankind’s creative and social history through time.
We thank the Berkshire Eagle for their extensive investigative coverage, the journalists, op-ed writers and our community for their hundreds of letters of concern and applaud Larry Parnass / Investigations Editor for his 2018 Outstanding Journalism award. See The Berkshire Eagle page located in Press menu.