Berkshire Museum Auction: Sotheby's to exhibit 40 pieces before sale

This Saturday Evening Post cover from April 29, 1950, featuring the painting “Shuffleton’s Barbershop”, is on display at the Norman Rockwell Museum.

Editor's note: This article was modified on Friday, Aug. 11, 2017, to the correct percentage of artwork being sold from the museum's fine art collection.

PITTSFIELD — Each of the 40 artworks set to be auctioned by Berkshire Museum will be exhibited to the public, for free.

But not in the Berkshires.

The sale of the artwork, which includes two Norman Rockwells, as well as other pieces by American and European artists from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, is expected to fetch at least $50 million. Museum leaders have said that money will provide for a significant endowment and a planned renovation of the 114-year-old venue; and without it, it will close within eight years.

The decision to sell a portion of its fine art collection has ignited a debate locally, nationally and internationally.

Some members of the community have called on museum leaders to rethink its sale, which it has said it does not plan to do.

Sotheby's will sell the works from the Berkshire Museum during a number of auctions in New York over six months starting in November, Lisa Dennison, chairman of Sotheby's Americas explained in an email.

And exhibitions of all the artwork sold in those auctions will be held at its New York headquarters, 1334 York Ave., and elsewhere at least a week prior to auction.

"Therefore the public will have the opportunity to view all of the Berkshire works prior to each respective sale," wrote Dennison, former director of the Guggenheim Museum who joined Sotheby's in 2007.

Each of its auctions is preceded by a public viewing, held primarily for potential buyers to view the work prior to sale, a Sotheby's spokesman said.

However, those exhibits are free and open to the public during its normal business hours.

In addition, select works from the collection, including the Rockwells, will be exhibited at other Sotheby's locations, including London, Hong Kong and Los Angeles throughout October.

Client viewings will be arranged in New York in early September, Dennison said.

Sotheby's is still finalizing exact dates for the auctions, but Berkshire Museum works will be included in three auctions planned for November. Those auctions will include works by Francis Picabia, Henry Moore, William Bouguereau and Norman Rockwell, she explained.

January 2018 Sotheby's plans to auction "master paintings" including Berkshire Museum works by Benjamin West and Pieter de Hooch. The museum's Giulio Tadolini sculpture, one of two works that has yet to be shipped to Sotheby's from the Berkshires, will be auctioned in April 2018, she wrote.

Museum leaders have said selling the 40 works will result in at least $50 million.

All those works will be sold at auction, even if a portion of the collection garners $50 million early in the process, according to museum leadership.

The museum's agreement with Sotheby's does not allow works to be pulled back, said Berkshire Museum Executive Director Van Shields.

Shields said he and museum trustees asked two questions while selecting what artwork to auction: "Is it mission critical?" and "Is it necessary for interpretive goals?"

If the answer to both questions was "no," they then considered the sum an artwork was likely to fetch on the open market. Currently, many of the artworks Berkshire Museum chose to sell are being prepared for auction, which includes photographing and researching each piece, Sotheby's confirmed.

That information will be included in catalogs along with price estimates, provenance, exhibition history and more. The catalogs will be available on Sotheby's website three to four weeks prior to each auction, he said.

The 40 works being sold by the Berkshire Museum represent 1.67 percent of its 2,395 fine art pieces. That collection includes 440 paintings, 277 works on paper, 248 Asian works and 91 sculptures, which are the types of artwork headed for auction.

The Berkshire Museum's plans have drawn national attention because some in the museum world contend artwork, and other museum items, should only be sold to purchase more work or to care for a collection. And some have also said they are opposed to the idea that works of regional significance might be sold into private hands.

Berkshire Museum leaders have said the sale of the artwork, a decision it arrived at after considerable research, is the only way to keep its doors open and create a foundation for its long-term success. It is an idea that leaders say has been met by "overwhelming" support.

To arrive at its vision, the board spent about two years studying options and gathering feedback from about 400 community members, museum leadership has said.

Its plans will also help transform the South Street venue, which founder Zenas Crane modeled after the Smithsonian and the Museum of Natural History, into a space that meets the needs of the community and 21st-century audiences. Its plans call for a renewed commitment to science and natural history.

Without the sale, the museum would close in six to eight years. Its endowment, currently about $8.6 million, has been consistently depleted in recent years by a $1.15 million annual structural deficit, museum leaders have said.

Reach staff writer Carrie Saldo at 413-496-6221 or @carriesaldo