AG quizzes experts on sale's impact on Berkshire Museum collection
PITTSFIELD — Though the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office isn't commenting on its review of Berkshire Museum art sales, it is leaving footprints.
Two experts tell The Eagle they were interviewed last week by an assistant attorney general about the meaning of "donor intent" and the nature of the museum's collection.
The two men, James Collins Moore and David Peter Moser, had written a letter to Emily Gabrault, an assistant attorney general in the office's nonprofit organizations and public charities division.
Moore, former head of the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History in New Mexico, and Moser, an art appraiser who lives in Florida, both oppose the museum's planned sale of 40 works from its collection. As of now, 19 pieces have confirmed sale dates.
In their letter, the men appealed to Gabrault's office to obtain information on the source of the works. In follow-up interviews with both men by telephone, Gabrault and others on the calls appeared to be gathering information on whether correspondence between the museum and artist and donor Norman Rockwell constituted evidence of donor intent.
In a call with Moser, Gabrault asked for his views on what kind of collection will remain at the museum if the 40 works were sold.
"They did wonder if the museum would still have a 'worthwhile' collection less the sold artwork," Moser said. "They mostly spoke to me about my childhood experiences at the museum and the importance of the art being sold versus what will be left as a residual collection."
That line of questioning concerned Moser, because it led him to infer that the Attorney General's Office may view the sale as small enough to allow it to continue to produce art exhibitions.
"They're kind of making a case saying the museum can survive with what it has left," Moser said. "It's not great from our point of view."
The Attorney General's Office has not commented on the specifics of its review. Last week, a motion for a temporary restraining order in Berkshire Superior Court ensured that the office will take a public position on the issue in coming weeks.
The office was named a party of interest in a civil suit filed by three sons of Norman Rockwell and others in the community.
Moser is a former corporate art consultant with experience in galleries, including work documenting art collections. He said he was asked by the attorney general's office to create and share a timeline related to the museum's collection, a body of work he says he has known for years.
"It inspired me to be an art history major," Moser said of the museum's collection. "They really want to know how the museum's mission has changed. The collection is just as important to me as seeing the mummy or the fluorescent rock exhibit."
The attorney general's office declined Monday to comment on the interviews conducted with Moore and Moser.
Both Moser and Moore say they pressed the AG's office to obtain and preserve curatorial records for the 40 works.
"I literally pleaded with them to secure the records," said Moore, a topic addressed in the men's joint letter to Gabrault.
The museum has declined to provide access to those records to researchers and to The Eagle.
Moore said he told the office that in light of the museum's statements that the works face no sale restrictions, it is an important issue to document.
"My feeling is, 'Trust but verify,'" Moore said. "Sotheby's would have immediately said, 'Let's look at the 'doc' file because they want to prove provenance," he said, using the term for a work's origins and past ownership.
"The hard copy record contains true historical records, such as Zenas [Crane's] letters," Moore said. "I told the AG, 'Don't just ask for the computer printouts, you've got to ask for the hard copy. ... You have the power to do it and you can even subpoena them.'"
In his own call with officials in Boston, which took place Thursday from his home in Florida, Moser said he argued the same point.
"We still need access [to the documents] and we don't want the files to be suddenly lost or appear missing," he said.
Moore said representatives of the office asked him specifically about a letter that Stuart Henry, a former museum director, wrote to Rockwell in 1958 thanking the artist for donating "Shuffleton's Barbershop."
"We are delighted to have it for our permanent collection," Henry wrote the artist.
What do the words in that sentence mean to you? Moore says he was asked.
"It's not a gray area. It means it remains in the permanent collection ... in perpetuity," he said he told the office. "I said to them, 'No, that is not ambiguous at all.'"
Moser said he was asked if the museum might have a box in storage marked "Zenas Crane" containing donor records and correspondence. He said he wasn't able to provide information on that.
Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.
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