hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News  December 2017-January 2018



Court halts art sale as museum faces scrutiny


A Massachusetts Appeals Court justice has put the brakes on the Berkshire Museum’s plan to auction off as many as 40 works of art from its collection.

The judge’s ruling on Nov. 10 -- three days before an initial round of art was scheduled for auction at Sotheby’s in New York City – grants a request by state Attorney General Maura Healey to delay the art sale while her office reviews the details of the museum’s plans.
Justice Joseph A. Trainor issued an injunction barring the museum from “selling, auctioning or otherwise disposing of any of the artworks that have been listed for auction.” The injunction expires Dec. 11 but can be extended by the attorney general’s office. Trainor’s ruling effectively reverses a Berkshire Superior Court decision in early November that had allowed the auction to go forward.

The museum has been embroiled in controversy since it revealed plans in July to sell the art – including works by Norman Rockwell, Frederic Edwin Church, Alexander Calder and Albert Bierstadt. The museum’s leaders want to use funds from the sale to bolster its endowment and help pay for a $20 million renovation that would shift the institution’s focus from art to science and natural history. Its leaders say the Pittsfield museum has been operating at a deficit for years and will run out of money within the next decade if it doesn’t change course.

But critics say the pieces to be sold are the jewels of the museum’s collection. Opponents of the art sale, including three sons of Norman Rockwell, also have argued that some of the works in question were donated to the museum with the understanding the art would remain in Berkshire County for future generations to enjoy.

The Berkshire Eagle reported last month that, with the injunction now in place, the attorney general’s office appears to be broadening its inquiry and has requested hundreds of documents relating to the museum’s financial condition, its rights to sell specific works of art, and possible conflicts of interest involving museum officials. Healey’s office has legal responsibility for overseeing the operation of nonprofit and charitable organizations in Massachusetts.

One specific conflict identified by the attorney general’s office involves the museum’s payments to Hill-Engineers, Architects, Planners Inc., a Dalton firm whose president, Jeffrey Noble, is on the museum board. The Eagle, citing federal tax filings, reported that the museum has made at least $578,000 in payments to Hill-Engineers since 2011.

In the weeks since appellate court halted the auction, the museum’s lawyers have filed a flurry of legal motions aimed at curbing or contesting details of the attorney general’s inquiry. At the beginning of December, the museum asked a three-judge panel of the Massachusetts Appellate Court to speed up its handling of the case, given the museum’s “precarious financial condition,” and allow the matter to proceed to trial at the lower-court level in Pittsfield. Otherwise, the museum’s plans could be on hold for months.

The museum’s lawyer wrote in a memo to the court that every day the attorney general’s claim remains pending “is one more day that the museum must continue to operate in an unsustainable financial condition rather than execute a plan it developed, after two years of planning and deliberation, to remain open serving the community.”

Meanwhile, The Berkshire Eagle has asked the courts to unseal documents related the museum’s planned art sale, including the museum’s contract with Sotheby’s and a 2016 memo from a consulting firm the museum hired to help it plan for its new focus on science and children’s programs.

Sotheby’s has claimed that the museum would face a big financial penalty if it reneges on its agreement to sell the artwork in question, but the details of that agreement have remained secret.
-- Compiled by Fred Daley