This undated photo provided by Sotheby’s shows the popular Norman Rockwell masterpiece ’The Gossips,’ which is heading for the auction
This undated photo provided by Sotheby's shows the popular Norman Rockwell masterpiece 'The Gossips,' which is heading for the auction block. (AP Photo/Sotheby's)

LENOX -- As many as eight paintings currently hanging at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge are on loan from private individuals, families or institutions and could be reclaimed by their owners at any time, possibly to go on the auction block.

The best-known work is a 1960 Saturday Evening Post cover, "Repairing Stained Glass," said Thomas Daly, the museum's education curator, as well as some secondary illustrations.

At a gathering of Rockwell aficionados in the Lenox Library, Daly also discussed the high-security, hush-hush departure early this month of three famed and valuable illustrations -- "Saving Grace," "The Gossips" and "Walking to Church" -- now awaiting a high-profile Dec. 4 auction at Sotheby's in Manhattan.

The three are expected to fetch a combined total of anywhere from $25 million to $35 million. Hollywood moguls Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, both avid Rockwell art collectors, are among the potential bidders, Daly confirmed.

He was the Sunday afternoon speaker at the library's first monthly Distinguished Lecture event of the season. Daly explained that of the roughly 800 Rockwell works owned by and housed at the museum -- the largest collection in the world -- 100 to 125 are on display at any given time, as are just over a handful on loan.

Museums typically exhibit a number of art works on loan from private collectors, said Margalit Hotchkiss, the Rockwell's deputy director of audience and business development, in a followup interview Monday.


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"We didn't know when Sotheby's was coming to grab these three paintings," Daly told the library audience, "and that is part of the design of collecting artwork from third parties. They weren't our property anyway, so it was up to the discretion of the owners as to when they were to be collected."

On Monday, Daly and Hotchkiss clarified that for security reasons, only a limited number of high-level museum staffers were in the loop, and Daly was not among them, when an unmarked truck and two couriers from the auction house showed up early on Labor Day, Sept. 2.

At the library, Daly told the audience how security chief Dan Colello had encountered the couriers who, though lacking documentation, insisted they did not need any paperwork to take the art -- "we're going to take it right now," they told Colello. "No, you're not, you're not going to do that," Colello responded.

After some phone calls were exchanged and a Sotheby's executive appeared on the scene to supply the paperwork, the high-security transfer was accomplished, Daly said. Colello was off duty on Monday and not available for comment.

Hotchkiss explained in a followup interview that museum CEO Laurie Norton Moffatt -- who was traveling in London on Monday -- and several other top staffers, including the security chief, indeed were aware of the Labor Day transfer and were on the scene.

Daly apologized for sharing more about the nearly secret artwork pickup than he should have in a public forum and said that though he had been at the museum that day, his account had been based on what he overheard from Colello and others at lunchtime.

He and Hotchkiss emphasized that the museum has known for 18 years that the three paintings eventually would be reclaimed. Since 1995, they had been on loan to the museum by the owners, the three sons of the late Kenneth J. Stuart, an art director of the Saturday Evening Post where 322 Rockwell illustrations appeared on the cover of the weekly magazine beginning in 1916 into the 1960s.

"They weren't ours, we were kind of comfortable with them, but we knew they were going to go," Daly said. "We were certainly disappointed." Because litigation among the three heirs had dragged on for 18 years, he continued, "we figured they'd keep fighting, making the lawyers rich and we'd be all set. Maybe they'd forget about them (the paintings), but that didn't happen."

Hotchkiss pointed out that confidentiality agreements prevented the museum from disclosing the departure of the three works until Sotheby's went public in a prepared announcement last Wednesday.

Stephanie Plunkett, the museum's deputy director and chief curator, asserted on Monday that "we were completely ready for this. We made a concerted effort to make sure this was done appropriately."

To contact Clarence Fanto:

cfanto@yahoo.com or (413) 637-2551.

On Twitter:@BE_cfanto