All but two works sold, Berkshire Museum reports

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All but two of the artworks to be sold by the Berkshire Museum have found new owners, including two pieces nabbed by bidders at a New York City auction Wednesday.

With the latest sales, the museum confirms that it has found buyers for 20 of the 22 works that trustees removed from its collection last year in a drive to build its endowment, and invest in changes and improvements at its 39 South St. home.

The museum did not report how close the sales to date bring it to the $55 million maximum it can raise under the agreement trustees reached with Attorney General Maura Healey and approved by the Supreme Judicial Court in April.

Of nine additional pieces the museum said in June that it would sell, three will be owned by public institutions or nonprofits, according to a statement Wednesday from Carol Bosco Baumann on behalf of the museum.

Those include Albert Bierstadt's "Giant Redwood Trees of California" and Benjamin West's "Daniel Interpreting to Belshazzar the Handwriting on the Wall."

It previously was disclosed by the Calder Foundation that it purchased Alexander Calder's "Dancing Torpedo Shape" — the third work that will remain accessible to the public. Keeping the art in the public realm was a stated goal in the agreement reached with Healey's office.

Two other works have gone to private buyers: Thomas Wilmer Dewing's "Two Ladies in a Drawing Room/The White Dress" and Charles Wilson Peale's "Portrait of General David Forman."

That tally leaves just two remaining paintings from the group identified for sale in June.

They are George Henry Durrie's "Hunter in Winter Wood" and Thomas Moran's "The Last Arrow."

On Wednesday, an auctioneer's hammer got the museum to the top end of likely bids on two Chinese works, but not in the way expected.

One piece, a vase featuring two claw-footed dragons in cobalt blue, sold for well above predictions, going for $110,000 at Sotheby's "Important Chinese Art" auction in New York City, well above its expected range of $30,000 to $50,000.

But hours later, during a daylong sale, a decorative screen from the late 17th century underperformed, selling for $60,000 — considerably below prices anticipated by the auction house.

The work, "A Ten-Panel Coromandel `Birthday' Screen," had been pegged for bids of $80,000 to $120,000 last year in advance of a spring auction.

Both of the works were pulled from a March sale due to pending litigation. They are among the 40 pieces identified for sale by the museum in July 2017.

Still, the two works that sold Wednesday together brought $170,000 in hammer prices — equal to the earlier high-bid estimates. It isn't known publicly whether costs spelled out in the museum's consignment contract with Sotheby's will reduce the museum's actual payout.

The museum's decision to remove the 40 works from its collection roiled the art world, since it broke with conventions in the profession restricting the use of proceeds from sales to the good of collections.

The two Chinese works were among the nine pieces put up for sale after an initial round of auctions and private transactions, including sales of two paintings by Norman Rockwell, netted the museum $47 million, it has reported. Local opponents of the sales called unsuccessfully for the museum to retain the nine works.

In its statement Wednesday, the museum said the sales will "generate the $55 million (it) needs to create a sustainable endowment and fund needed renovations and repairs to the Museum's more than 11-year-old building."

In early February, after a monthslong inquiry, Healey's office changed its stance on the legality of the museum's sales and supported them, saying that it would be "impracticable" for the institution to right its financial ship any other way.

The museum claimed to be struggling with a $1 million yearly deficit in an unfriendly fundraising climate.

But the museum had to agree to conditions to secure Healey's consent, including a cap on allowable sale proceeds and other requirements.

Once the current round of sales is complete, the museum is required to issue a final report to the attorney general with specifics on the proceeds it has raised.

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


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