Rockwell sons drop Berkshire Museum suit; other plaintiffs file with SJC

The three sons of artist Norman Rockwell retreated Thursday from litigation over Berkshire Museum art sales, saying they achieved their goal.

PITTSFIELD — The three sons of artist Norman Rockwell retreated Thursday from litigation over Berkshire Museum art sales, saying they achieved their goal.

In a statement, the family embraced the plan announced Feb. 9 to keep "Shuffleton's Barbershop" accessible to the public.

"The Rockwell family joined this litigation to prevent 'Shuffleton's Barbershop' from being sold at a public auction or being removed from public display," the statement said. "That objective has now been achieved and therefore they do not wish to participate in further legal proceedings concerning the disposition of other art held by the Berkshire Museum."

But fellow plaintiffs in that first lawsuit to target the museum's plan renewed their objections Thursday.

The museum seeks a blessing from the state's highest court to sell 40 works from its collection — and five of the original plaintiffs want to be heard on that.

In a filing to the Supreme Judicial Court of Suffolk County, a Pittsfield artist and his company and four residents of Berkshire County asked for permission to file a brief outlining their opposition to the museum's plan.

The remaining plaintiffs are Pittsfield artist Tom Patti, his firm, Tom Patti Design LLC, and Berkshire County residents James Lamme, Donald MacGillis, Jonas Dovydenas and Jean Rousseau. (MacGillis is chairman of The Eagle's advisory board.)

In their motion, the plaintiffs say that although they were parties alongside Attorney General Maura Healey in a Berkshire Superior Court civil action, Healey's office did not tell them it was about to sanction the art sales.

Instead, they were "abruptly informed" of the pact late in the day Feb. 9.

"They were never informed by the Attorney General that the Attorney General was negotiating the settlement of this matter," the motion says.

The agreement includes conditions that need approval from a single justice of the SJC. The conditions include selling "Shuffleton's Barbershop" to an unidentified nonprofit museum, putting a $55 million cap on how much can be raised through art sales and requiring financial reports from the museum.

The painting's prospective buyer has agreed to loan the work to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge for 18 to 24 months, not long after the sale closes.

'Lift the veil'

Michael B. Keating, a partner with the Boston firm Foley Hoag, said that if his remaining clients are allowed to intervene, they will raise questions about the museum's plan.

"We feel we need to lift the veil of secrecy on these proceedings," Keating said. "We think there are important public issues and they affect how much of the rest of the art has to be sold."

Keating declined to detail points he would make, if allowed to submit an intervenor or amicus curiae ("friend of the court") brief to the SJC.

In the three-page filing Thursday, Keating asked for the ability to involve his clients with the case in its new venue. The motion renews objections to the sale, which it characterizes as secretive.

"The Museum did not disclose this extraordinary plan to the local community or to the Attorney General until after the Museum had signed a consignment contract with Sotheby's, which includes penalties for withdrawal of the works from sale," the motion says.

Because the attorney general supports the museum's art sale, plaintiffs say, no one is left to inform the court about issues raised through months of litigation.

The filing notes that after the Attorney General's Office became a "necessary party" in the Superior Court case, it filed a legal document called a cross-claim in which it said museum directors were acting in breach of trust and in violation of their duty to care for the nonprofit institution.

Those two standards are expectations under public charities law.

Healey's office said that in the last weeks of its investigation, it came to be satisfied that the museum required a major infusion of capital.

But Keating's motion notes that, less than a month ago, Healey's office filed an appellate brief that said the art to be sold was under restriction.

The museum's filing to the SJC, known as a "cy pres" petition, would remove any restrictions. The museum continues to assert that none of the 40 works is barred from sale.

The plaintiffs, along with the three Rockwells, had been appealing a Nov. 7 ruling in Berkshire Superior Court that they lacked legal standing to challenge the art sales.

That ruling, by Judge John A. Agostini, left only the attorney general as a possible plaintiff. Within days, Healey's office secured the first of three injunctions that prevented art sales through Feb. 5.

But in a dramatic shift, Healey's office announced Feb. 9 that it had come to terms with the museum.

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