Protest of Berkshire Museum art sale to return to Sotheby's

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Opponents of Berkshire Museum art sales will again stake out a Manhattan sidewalk, determined to decry what they see as an unethical "monetizing" of the Pittsfield collection.

"We want the public to be aware of it and let other institutions know this is a cautionary tale," said Hope Davis, of Great Barrington, a spokeswoman for Save the Art-Save the Museum.

"We just don't have the protections we need," she said.

Members of the group will gather outside Sotheby's on York Avenue in New York City ahead of Wednesday's 10 a.m. American Art auction, the last of five sales this month involving a first batch of works from the Berkshire Museum being sold under terms authorized by the Supreme Judicial Court in April.

The citizens group also held a permitted protest May 14 on the first night of sales, when Sotheby's sold works by Henry Moore and Francis Picabia.

On Tuesday, the auction house is scheduled to sell five works owned by the museum, including two paintings each by Bouguereau and Isenbrandt and one by Pasini.

The following day, Norman Rockwell's "Blacksmith's Boy, Heel and Toe" (also known as Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop"), will be put up for bid. Other works from Pittsfield to be sold Wednesday are a landscape painting by Frederic Church, a portrait of George Washington by Rembrandt Peale, and a still life by John LaFarge.

At the first sidewalk protest, members of Save the Art held signs and interacted with people passing on York Avenue, including some entering Sotheby's, according to Davis.

She said many people appeared to be aware of the issues behind the protest. The museum's controversial sale of art has been covered by media outlets around the world.

"They were very supportive," Davis said of those who noticed the protest. "Some walking into the auction gave us the thumbs-up," she said. "It was a good forum to get our message out more broadly."

Darrell Rocha, head of the press office for Sotheby's, declined to comment Monday on the effect the protests may have on art sales.

The museum in April won permission from Justice David A. Lowy to raise up to $55 million through art sales to improve its financial condition. Of that sum, $40 million is expected to be used to bulk up an endowment to offset recurring deficits museum leaders said left the institution at risk of closing.

Other auction and sales proceeds will finance a renovation and expansion in pursuit of a "new vision" that includes multimedia programming on science and nature.

Davis said she expects a smaller group of protesters to gather Wednesday, since it is a work day. The earlier protest was held in advance of an evening auction.

When asked how many she expected to hold signs, Davis answered: "Enough to make an impact."

The protest will again take place outside the auction house's main entrance at 1334 York Ave. on Manhattan's east side. Members of the public are invited to attend, Save the Art said in a release.

With Berkshire Museum art sales sanctioned by a judge, Davis and others are focused now on raising awareness about what they see as the need for legislation to protect museum and other collections from sales that run counter the best interests of collections.

The point, according to Save the Art, is to flag what members see as a dangerous precedent being set by the Berkshire Museum sales, one they believe threatens collections of art and artifacts "in the public trust held by museums, libraries and historical societies beyond Massachusetts."

"Making that happen is many years down the road," Davis said of a push to shape protective legislation. "That's a colossal effort."

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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