Berkshire Museum's Calder sculpture back in the family

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Rather than go into a private collection, one of Alexander Calder's earliest mobile sculptures, acquired from the artist by the Berkshire Museum in the depths of the Depression, is now in family hands.

The artist's own.

Alexander S.C. Rower, grandson of the sculptor, bought "Double Arc and Sphere" at auction Wednesday night on behalf of the Calder Foundation.

Rower paid $1 million for the 1932 work — the only Berkshire Museum holding up for sale at the second of five auctions this month at Sotheby's in New York City.

In an interview with ARTnews, Rower said the foundation will show the piece after having it restored.

"So Calder's genius will be seen by more people," Rower told the publication.

Rower was said to be in meetings Thursday morning and afternoon at the New York City foundation and was not available for further comment.

He reportedly told members of the Save the Art-Save the Museum group at a protest Monday outside Sotheby's that the mobile his grandfather created had been painted after it was acquired by the museum. The motor that turns elements in the wood, wire and rod piece needed to be replaced.

According to the auction house, the sculpture "is in very good condition overall," but in a post on its website ahead of the sale, the firm advised buyers to inspect works and said they "must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion."

All lots are offered and sold on an "as is" basis.

Sotheby's said the Calder work is important example of pieces the artist created in a "transformative" time in his career, when he was experimenting with "the modernist canon within three-dimensional space."

It was Laura Bragg, the museum's first director, who acquired two works by Calder in 1933 and invited the artist, who had a home in Richmond, to join an exhibition of works by emerging artists.

The two sculptures are believed to be among the first by Calder to be acquired by a museum, Sotheby's said.

Rower, the artist's grandson, says in a video on the foundation's website that the work emerged after a particularly "rich year" of creativity for Calder, a time when he fashioned his first suspended sculpture.

Sotheby's had predicted the Calder work could bring bids of $2 million to $3 million — meaning the sale realized only half of the low estimate. Last fall, the house put a $3 million to $4 million estimate on the same work, cutting that markedly for the sale five months later and still coming up short.

Reach for $55 million

The hammer that fell Wednesday on the Calder sale capped a first week of auctions of Berkshire Museum works, when three pieces sold for a total of $2,160,000.

Those sales represent 3.9 percent of $55 million the museum is allowed to raise from art sales under terms approved by the Supreme Judicial Court for Suffolk County in early April.

When initially listed for auction last year, the three works sold this week were valued by Sotheby's at $4.2 million to $5.8 million. That means hammer prices this month have been so far half of the low estimate from late last fall.

But the November sales were halted when Attorney General Maura Healey secured an eleventh-hour injunction from the Massachusetts Appeals Court, arguing that the museum was not free to sell the works. Healey's staff held that stance for the next three months, until the office agreed with the museum that sales were needed to protect the museum from succumbing to financial losses.

Healey's office dropped its objections in exchange for sales conditions. The deal allowed $50 million of the auction proceeds to be used in any way the museum wished. That ran counter to widely accepted museum practices, which call for proceeds to be reinvested in the care of collections.

The museum has said it plans to place $40 million of proceeds into its endowment, then use earnings to offset a roughly $1 million yearly budget deficit. Other monies will be put toward a "New Vision" plan related to its shift in focus to what it has called "an innovative 21st century institution" that would cost $20 million to create.

In its online promotion for this month's auctions, Sotheby's appears to mischaracterize how the museum plans to use proceeds.

"All sales proceeds will support the institution's new vision — the creation of an exciting interdisciplinary museum, with a heightened emphasis on science and history as well as the arts," the firm says.

In fact, the museum plans to apply nearly three-quarters of its allowed $55 million in proceeds to future operational costs, according to its earlier public statements. When it first listed the 40 works it planned to sell, the museum said $40 million would be tucked into its endowment.

That statement came July 24, before the museum was named in two civil lawsuits and fended off months of litigation and a probe by Healey's office. At that time, according to the Sotheby's consignment contract obtained through legal action by The Eagle, sale of the 40 works was expected to bring up to $76.1 million.

Bigger sale

Earlier this spring, the museum transferred Norman Rockwell's "Shuffleton's Barbershop" in a private sale to the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art.

The sale price was not disclosed, but the bid range placed on the work last fall was $20 million to $30 million.

That work will go on view June 9 for an extended run in a series of exhibits at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge through 2020, a year before the California museum is expected to open.

On Monday, two other works owned by the Berkshire Museum — Henry Moore's "Three Seated Women" and Francis Picabia's "Force Comique" — received winning bids of $240,000 and $920,000, not including the buyer's premium paid to Sotheby's.

Next week, 10 other museum works go before buyers at three auctions at Sotheby's, including another work by Rockwell. When proceeds from all of the sales reach $55 million, the museum cannot sell other works, under terms of the agreement it reached in February with members of Healey's staff, then approved by Justice David A. Lowy of the state's top court.

The museum is required to file financial reports with Healey's office. The sale price of "Shuffleton's Barbershop" has not yet been disclosed.

If the work sold to the Lucas museum at the high end of its earlier bid range, as set by Sotheby's, the museum would, as of now, be 58.4 percent of the way toward its allowed proceeds.

Results from auctions next Tuesday and Wednesday will determine whether the museum will be able to put another group of works up for sale.

The pieces listed for sale Tuesday include two works by William Bouguereau, two by Adriaen Isenbrant, and one each by Charles Francois Daubigny and Alberto Pasini.

The next day, Rockwell's "Blacksmith's Boy — Heel and Toe (Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop)," will go on sale at the American Art auction carrying a bid estimate of $7 million to $10 million.

It will have a lot of company. In all, 13 works by Rockwell from a variety of sellers will be auctioned Wednesday by Sotheby's.

Also listed for sale that day are Berkshire Museum works by Frederic Edwin Church, John La Farge and Rembrandt Peale.

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


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