STOCKBRIDGE -- On Labor Day, three of Normal Rockwell's beloved paintings were taken via truck to the Sotheby's auction house in New York City from the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, where they have been on loan for nearly 20 years.
"We can't comment on behalf of the owners," said museum director Laurie Norton Moffatt, when asked about the circumstances behind the impending sale of the works -- "Saying Grace," "The Gossips" and "Walking to Church."
"But of course, we were very sorry to see artwork leave."
While on loan, Norton Moffatt said the three paintings were insured and cared for by the museum.
"The museum has been providing stewardship for the work while it was here," she said in a phone interview after news of the December auction broke on national news outlets.
While there is no doubt that these pieces of iconic Rockwell work were important to the museum's collection, Norton Moffatt is quick to point out the museum has so much more to offer the art world.
"We have the largest collection of Rockwell art," she said. "We have many paintings to show and share ... These were anchor paintings, but the breadth of our collection remains strong."
The museum currently houses 998 original paintings and drawings, according to its website. Rockwell lived in Stockbridge the last 25 years of his life, and his studio was moved to the museum site and is open to the public from May through October.
The earliest incarnation of the museum started at The Old Corner House on Stockbridge's Main Street in 1969, with the help of Norman and Molly Rockwell. It was moved to its current location, on 36 acres on Route 183 overlooking the Housatonic River, in 1993.
To those who might be envisioning empty, sad museum walls where the three paintings were once hung, Norton Moffatt notes that exhibits and galleries change; the work is presented thematically, historically, making it not uncommon for the work shown to change. In the slow seasons, the museum collection also hits the road with traveling exhibits across the country. Starting in November, Rockwell's work will be seen at the First Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville.
"This museum collection is sought out all around the world," she said. "There are a number of private collectors who loved his work, but the art world's commitment to Norman Rockwell started here and was really born here."
All of this is going on as the museum is preparing to host biographer and art critic Deborah Solomon on Oct. 19 for the release of her new biography, "American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell" -- a book Solomon spent 15 years researching in the museum's archives.
"[Solomon] spent many a summer here in the archives," Norton Moffatt said. "It's a very good example of how this museum is the source, the center on scholarship on Rockwell."
For Norton Moffatt, the silver lining in the sale of these precious works is the national attention the work is now getting. She said it shows how important Rockwell's work is to American culture, something the museum has recognized for 45 years.
While she doesn't know whose hands Rockwell's masterpieces will end up in once on the auction block, she said she does hope they go to another museum or a collector who might someday donate them back to their home for nearly two decades in Stockbridge.
"They brought joy to millions," she said of the work. "We hope they stay in the public dimension, somewhere. Art work always has the chance of resurfacing. Art is one of the hallmarks of our civilization that endures. It goes on to teach future generations what life was like at a certain time. These are the objects that teach us about our culture. In a way, we are all just stewards of the work until the next owner takes over."
A piece of Americana in the Berkshires
The Norman Rockwell Museum houses the world's largest collection of Rockwell art.
Some of the Stockbridge museum's highlights include:
n The Norman Rockwell Studio and its contents, which include the artist's materials, his personal art library of about 500 volumes, furnishings, mementos and hundreds of prints sent by fans.
n The Norman Rockwell Museum Archival Collection, which consists of Rockwell's archives -- the largest repository of the artist's personal papers.
n The museum collection, including iconic work such as "Christmas Homecoming," "The Art Critic" and "Girl Reading the Post."
n The Norman Rockwell Art Collection Trust, Rockwell's personal collection bequeathed to the museum in 1973. This 367-work collection includes large-scale oil paintings such as "Stockbridge Main Street in Christmas" and "The Four Freedoms."
Rockwell Museum ...
Where: 9 Route 183, Stockbridge.
Hours: Through October, the museum is open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. November through April, the museum is open weekdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and on weekends and holidays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission: $16 for adults; $14.50 for seniors 65 and older; $10 for college students with valid ID; $5 for children, ages 6 to 18; Free for children 5 and under.
Information: nrm.org or (413) 298-4100