Berkshire Museum lists 13 works, including 2nd Rockwell, for May auction

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PITTSFIELD — Trustees of the Berkshire Museum say they hope to retain two-thirds of the works they can legally sell, acknowledging the "strong feelings" of those who oppose their financial rescue plan.

The museum Tuesday identified 13 works that will be offered at four May auctions at Sotheby's in New York City. The move came five days after the Supreme Judicial Court for Suffolk County granted the museum's petition to lift any restrictions and allow it to seek up to $55 million in proceeds under terms worked out with the state Attorney General's Office.

The list of works to be sold next month includes Norman Rockwell's "Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop," meaning that both of the late Berkshire County artist's heralded scenic paintings — both given by Rockwell to the museum — will leave the Pittsfield museum's collection.

In a private transaction, the museum plans to sell Rockwell's "Shuffleton's Barbershop" to an unidentified nonprofit museum that pledges to keep it on public display.

And in a bid to encourage museums to bid on the 13 works now scheduled to come up at Sotheby's high-profile spring sales, the museum and auction house will allow such buyers special financing terms.

"We recognize the strong feelings of those opposed to any sale," Elizabeth McGraw, the trustees' president, said in a release. "We worked hard, particularly in the case of `Shuffleton's Barbershop,' to address their concerns and keep the painting in public view and even in the Berkshires for a time."

The sale agreement calls for "Shuffleton's" to be exhibited for up to 24 months at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge.

McGraw said the museum hopes that proceeds from the sale of the initial 14 works "will allow us to hold the remaining works that had been approved for deaccession."

For at least one opponent of the sales, that offer rang hollow Tuesday.

Tom Patti, a Pittsfield artist whose work hangs in the museum and in collections around the country, said he no longer trusts the museum to properly care for its collection, which he believes belongs to the public.

"All this work was removed from Pittsfield without the public's consent," he said. "It was unique that those paintings existed in our community."

Patti added, "I have no trust for anything they say — whether they sell one or all of them."

Patti was among nearly 10 plaintiffs in two civil actions who attempted to block the sales, at first with support from the office of Attorney General Maura Healey.

After the plaintiffs were found in November to lack legal standing, Healey's office intensified an investigation into the museum's plan to sell 40 works of art. On Feb. 9, Healey's office and the museum announced they had come to terms allowing the sale of up to 40 works, in several groups.

The museum plans to use most of the money to bulk up its endowment and draw off earnings to counter what it says has been a recurring yearly deficit of more than $1 million. It will also tap proceeds to fund renovations to address problems with its 39 South St. building, and in pursuit of a new approach to exhibits that emphasizes multimedia and interactive presentations.

Freed by ruling

Tuesday's announcement identified the first group of works to be sold, all of which were freed up for sale by Thursday's ruling from Justice David A. Lowy.

Lowy's decision came one day before a deadline to submit marketing materials for the May auctions, the museum said.

The ruling ended a monthslong legal battle between the museum and community members, museum industry representatives and Rockwell family members who opposed the sale.

Other artists whose works are now listed for auction at Sotheby's include William Bouguereau, Alexander Calder and Frederic Edwin Church. The museum said it has notified the Attorney General's Office of the identity of the 13 works selected for auction, as required by the agreement reached in early February.

If the May auctions plus the private museum sale of "Shuffleton's" fetch $55 million, the sales would be halted, the museum said Tuesday.

That would mean that 26 other works that had been identified for sale, including Albert Bierstadt's "Giant Redwood Trees of California," Calder's "Dancing Torpedo Shape," and Thomas Moran's "The Last Arrow" would be returned by Sotheby's to Pittsfield.

The artworks headed to May sales include works previously valued by Sotheby's for sales last fall that were canceled when Healey's office won a preliminary injunction from the Massachusetts Appeals Court. That court halted sales that Judge John Agostini of Berkshire Superior Court had sanctioned in a November ruling, setting aside objections raised by the two plaintiff groups as well as Healey's office.

Five months later, with "Shuffleton's" already headed to another museum, Sotheby's and the local museum's trustees are taking steps to see if other works can remain accessible to the public.

To that end, Sotheby's and the museum will offer extended payment terms to public institutions that seek to bid. Sotheby's standard terms require full payment in 30 days.

In this case, it will allow installments over six months or longer to public institutions, the museum said.

In his decision last week, Justice Lowy urged the museum to consider ways to keep the art available to the public.

In her statement, McGraw said board members reviewed all the works that the court had approved for sale.

She said the goal was to retain works that could play a role as it retools its mission to focus on "bringing people together for experiences that spark creativity and innovative thinking by making inspiring educational connections among art, history, and natural science."

Based on initial bid ranges provided by Sotheby's, the 14 works now designated for sale could bring from a low of $42,220,000 to a high of $61,000,000.

While that does not include an additional 26 works first listed for sale, the 14 represent the lion's share of expected auction values.

The entire original group of works had been valued by Sotheby's at a low of $52,615,000 to a high of $76,180,000.

That means that, based on the high-bid range, the value of the 26 works that the museum says it hopes to retain is about $15 million.

David Peter Moser, a member of the Save the Art-Save the Museum group who has worked as a corporate art consultant, said he finds it hard to believe that the museum selected works to sell based on what it needed to retain for its educational mission.

A bigger factor, he said, would be the marketability of particular works and how they fit in with other pieces, from different sellers, on consignment at particular auctions.

The Calder work for sale, "Double Arc and Sphere," was likely chosen because it is "prettier."

"It's something that is more desirable to the public at large than the other piece," Moser said.

The work by Henry Moore that is to be sold, "Three Seated Women," might top its high-bid range of $600,000, he predicted, and Francis Picabia's "Force Comique" might as well.

"They're pretty exceptional works by those artists and are highly desirable," Moser said.

He applauded the steps the museum and Sotheby's have taken to make it easier for museums to finance purchases of the art.

"I think that it's an exceptional idea," Moser said. "It does seem like creative financing."

Like other sale opponents, Lynn Villency Cohen, an art historian, believes the museum should have allowed members of the public to know that financing for its New Vision depended on selling works. For that reason, she said Tuesday, she finds it hard to accept that the museum is acting in the public interest to keep 26 works.

"If a portion of the valuable art can be saved and adequately cared for, it's a start," Cohen said.

Sales plan

One of the works deemed not to be critical to the museum's mission is Picabia's "Force Comique."

Marilyn Patti, who joined her husband, Tom, in opposing any sales from the collection, said Tuesday she regrets that the work will go on the block.

"Picabia is one of the only pieces in the collection from that time period," she said, referring to the 1913 work by the French avant-garde artist. "We don't want any of them sold."

The Picabia will go to auction May 14 at Sotheby's "Impressionist & Modern Art Evening," along with Moore's "Three Seated Women."

Of the remaining works, the sales schedule is as follows:

- May 16, at the "Contemporary Art Evening," the museum will sell Calder's mobile "Double Arc and Sphere."

- May 22, at the "European Art" auction, the museum will sell: Bouguereau's "L'Agneau Nouveau-Ne" and the same artist's "Les deux soeurs (La Bourrique)," along Charles Francois Daubigny's "Paysans allant aux champs (Le Matin),"Adriaen Isenbrant's "The Flight into Egypt" and "The Temptation of Adam and Eve," and Alberto Pasini's "Faubourg de Constantinople."

- May 23, at the "American Art" auction, the museum will sell: Rockwell's "Blacksmith's Boy — Heel and Toe (Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop)," Rembrandt Peale's "George Washington," Church's "Valley of Santa Isabel, New Granada" and John La Farge's "Magnolia."

'Secret' process

Tom Patti said he remains unsettled by what he sees as a secretive process.

When trustees announced plans to sell art last July, officials at first declined to identify which pieces would leave the collection.

"There was no need to keep that secret," he said. "Knowing that it was wrong, they kept it secret."

But in her statement, McGraw returned to a theme of necessity expressed by the museum repeatedly over the past three seasons.

"We are moving forward to secure the future of the Berkshire Museum," she said. "We now hope we can raise what the museum needs by offering for sale fewer than half of the works originally anticipated. That's good for the museum and the community we serve."

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


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