Top Stories of 2017: Berkshire Museum's planned art sale draws national attention
PITTSFIELD — The Berkshire Museum ended 2017 aglow, thanks to its popular "Festival of Trees." It brought a twinkling respite from the museum's most newsworthy year.
A holiday lull in litigation is about to end, replaced by what's bound to be — for one side or the other — an unhappy new year.
On July 12, 2017, the museum's leaders announced plans to sell 40 prized works from their collection and use as much as $60 million in proceeds to patch troubled finances and propel reinvention. That move, which runs counter to accepted museum practices, became what editors of The Eagle believe to be Berkshire County's most significant news story of the year.
Because the sale could set a precedent on the fate of museum holdings, the evolving story was picked up by news organizations and bloggers around the U.S. — and even worldwide.
Coverage and commentary will keep rolling through 2018, first in continued court action and, perhaps, when the works, including two paintings given to the museum by Norman Rockwell, are finally brought to auction.
The paint is nowhere near set on the outcome. Until then, sales that some see as salvation, others as betrayal, remain in limbo.
In reams of legal filings, lawyers for the museum continue to joust with Attorney General Maura Healey and attorneys for two groups of plaintiffs. The main matchup now is between the museum and Healey's office.
The dispute centers on the question of who holds the right to decide the future of the museum's art holdings.
Trustees of the museum believe they do. They insist that they acted to prevent the 114-year-old institution, beset by years of deficits, from having to close within eight years.
But the attorney general questions whether trustees did all they could to manage their financial affairs without having to resort to a sale of this magnitude. The office cites its duty under state law to oversee the care of assets held for the common good.
The first round in litigation went the museum's way Nov. 7, when Berkshire Superior Court Judge John A. Agostini denied an effort by Healey to stop auctions that were to begin the week of Nov. 12.
But within days, Healey's team, taking its case to a single justice of the Massachusetts Appeals Court, won a preliminary injunction that prevented works by Rockwell and others from going to auction.
That injunction has been extended through Jan. 29. Healey's people owe the Appeals Court an update by Wednesday on their investigation into the museum's plan.
The museum's lawyers, meantime, are doing all they can to route the case back to the Superior Court level, where they believe they've already established, through Agostini's ruling, that the state is wrong to interfere with steps trustees believe to be in the museum's best interests.
Sotheby's only holds two auctions a year appropriate for works as valuable as the Rockwell paintings, in spring and fall. If the sale remains tied up at the appellate level through the early part of 2018, those paintings, alone valued at up to $40 million, could be headed for the same November auction of American art that had to go-ahead without them — and five other Berkshire Museum items — this year.
The litigation remains red hot, and costly. Taxpayers are paying the freight for Healey's briefs and court appearances. The museum declined to say whether it, or Sotheby's, is paying its legal costs. Meantime, the arts world is watching.
As crowds prowled the museum's second floor this month, a placard at the far end of one room praised Zenas Crane for his exquisite taste. It was Crane who gave a remarkable personal collection to the museum when he founded it in 1903.
As lights glowed in that room Dec. 17, a milestone came and went: the 100th anniversary of Crane's death. Time will tell whether some of the most valuable works he made a home for will return from a vault in New York City.
Larry Parnass can be reached at email@example.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.
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