Big reveal from Attorney General due on Berkshire Museum art sale

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PITTSFIELD — Cue another slow drum roll on the Berkshire Museum art-sale saga.

A week ago, the Attorney General's Office faced a judge's deadline to report on the status of its investigation into a proposed $60 million off-loading of the museum's most valuable pieces.

But instead of showing its hand, the office asked for another week. It wanted to analyze its findings after having gathered more than 5,000 documents and interviewed dozens of people.

Three days went by, with the request "under advisement."

Halfway through the week, word came. The state secured what seemed to be grudging approval from a Massachusetts Appeals Court justice.

The decision late Thursday from Justice Joseph A. Trainor extended an injunction barring art sales until Monday; it was the third time Trainor had initiated or renewed such a barrier.

But the justice drew a line: "No further extension should be anticipated," he wrote.

Today, it's again deadline time — on a case watched by the art industry around the world.

The museum announced July 12 it would sell 40 artworks, including two paintings by Norman Rockwell, to address financial problems that left it at risk of closing.

Two civil lawsuits, then intervention by Healey's office, halted the start of those sales in November, even as a first batch of works, including the Rockwell paintings, were on exhibit at Sotheby's in New York City.

Trainor's ruling Thursday said he wanted a report from the office of Attorney General Maura Healey on or before Monday.

In the intervening week, her office is believed to have engaged with the museum not as inquisitor, but as a possible partner — which historically has been the office's preferred stance with nonprofits and public charities.

That is, until the Berkshire Museum case upended tradition.

Healey's office signaled in a brief statement Jan. 29 that even as it reviewed what it would make public Monday, it was thinking of the Pittsfield institution's well-being and future.

Healey's office said it would use the added week to consider ways to "secure the future of the Museum and ensure it is able to thrive in the years to come."

Though neither her office nor the museum would comment, The Eagle confirmed an effort was underway to find a compromise.

If so, state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, may be playing a role.

In November, Hinds praised museum trustees for taking action to confront financial challenges, but said they may need to consider compromise. He urged parties to the dispute to find common ground.

Hinds has met multiple times with members of the Save the Art group opposed to the sale, according to people who participated in those conversations.

Hinds did not respond last week to a request to discuss his efforts to resolve the controversy.

The attorney general's statement last week about securing the museum's future supports Berkshire Superior Court Judge John A. Agostini's view, in a Nov. 7 ruling, that the state has been "a reluctant warrior" in the museum fight.

For its part, the museum was also looking ahead this past week, when asked what it hoped to hear from the attorney general's report. Spokeswoman Carol Bosco Baumann said the museum remains "eager to resolve these issues to secure the museum's long term future."

Hints of reconciliation worry some opponents of the sale.

"I'm concerned because a lot of people are interpreting negotiation as compromise, and I don't feel there is a compromise," said Carol Diehl of Housatonic, a member of the Save the Art group.

"That means, to me, selling paintings," added Diehl, who said she was speaking for herself and not the group.

As they waited for the state to weigh in, both the museum and the Save the Art group reiterated their original arguments, in separate statements last week.

Sotheby's confirmed it has custody of works, including the Rockwell paintings. No sale dates are scheduled.

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


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