Rockwells: Berkshire Museum vowed to make gift 'permanent'

Norman Rockwell's painting "Shuffleton's Barbershop" was published on the cover of the April 29, 1950, edition of The Saturday Evening Post, as photographed from the collection of the Norman Rockwell Museum.

PITTSFIELD — Three generations of Norman Rockwell family members pressed the state attorney general's office last week to stop the sale of two of the artist's best-known paintings, producing a 1958 letter they say contains a pledge by the Berkshire Museum to keep a painting in its permanent collection.

In a 20th-floor meeting room in Boston overlooking the Charles River, the Rockwells told four attorneys the museum should not be allowed to auction their relative's work, saying the artist wanted "Shuffleton's Barber Shop" and "Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop" to be available forever to the public.

"It's totally against what Norman Rockwell would have wanted," said Margaret Rockwell, who manages the Norman Rockwell Family Agency from her home in Alberta, Canada. "We're horrified this is happening."

The family was represented at the 75-minute meeting Tuesday by Rockwell's son, Peter, and by Peter's daughter Mary, and daughter-in-law Margaret. Margaret Rockwell is married to Peter Rockwell's son Geoffrey.

According to Margaret Rockwell, members of the attorney general's office attending included Richard Johnston, chief legal counsel; Courtney Aladro, an assistant attorney general in the nonprofits and public charities division; Mary Beckman, chief of the nonprofits and public charities division; and Michael Firestone, chief of staff.

Apart from their own appeals, family members presented a Sept. 23, 1958, letter that Stuart C. Henry, a longtime director of the museum, wrote to Norman Rockwell.

"I send to you the thanks of all our Trustees for your generous gift of the painting, `Shuffleton's Barber Shop'. We are delighted to have it for our permanent collection," Henry wrote.

Margaret Rockwell said the attorneys appeared to be familiar with the 1958 letter. Family members left the Boston meeting without a sense of whether the review will result in steps to stop the sale.

"They said, `We'd love to hear your questions,' " Rockwell said attorneys said at the meeting.

At one point, she said, a lawyer cautioned that the office may not have the legal authority to intervene.

The attorney general's office confirms it is reviewing the museum's sale of art, but is not commenting during that inquiry. The office also met recently with representatives of the museum.

A spokeswoman Friday said the Pittsfield museum is not speaking about the state's review.

'In fear'

"We're living in fear about what's happening," Rockwell said Saturday, in an interview from her room at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, while on a business trip to the region.

"We don't know if they will be able to stop it," she said of the attorney general's office. "We don't know where we stand."

She said the family has retained an attorney but isn't sure how it will proceed.

Laurie Norton Moffatt, director and CEO of the Norman Rockwell Museum, also attended the Boston meeting. She brought two large-format reproductions of the Rockwell paintings that are scheduled to be sold by Sotheby's on Nov. 13.

The pieces were placed on easels. Peter Rockwell, the artist's son, spoke about the works. Peter Rockwell, a sculptor, recently moved from Italy back to the U.S., Margaret Rockwell said.

"He told them his father wanted [the works] to stay in Pittsfield," she said.

Rockwell said that at the meeting she also read aloud a letter from her daughter, Alethea Rockwell, urging that the sale be stopped.

With that reading, Margaret Rockwell said, family members believed they were representing the views of three generations.

Four, she said, counting the wishes of the artist himself.

"We feel there is strong and supported documentation," Norton Moffatt said of Norman Rockwell's wish to keep the works in Pittsfield. "His wishes are very clear. His trust in the Berkshire Museum was complete. ... It would have meant so much to Rockwell to have his work in a museum that he respected and loved."

Margaret Rockwell said that in an effort to understand the terms of the artist's gifts, she wrote a letter this summer to Van Shields, the Berkshire Museum's executive director, asking for access to curatorial documents for the two paintings. She said she followed that up with an email, but did not hear back.

"There was no response," she said. "I was writing on behalf of the family."

The museum did not respond to repeated requests by The Eagle for access to those same documents.

Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.

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Larry Parnass joined The Eagle in 2016 from the Daily Hampshire Gazette, where he was editor in chief. His freelance work has appeared in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Hartford Courant, CommonWealth Magazine and with the Reuters news service.