You have to wonder how many members of the artworld could point to Pittsfield, Massachusetts on a map before the Berkshire Museum announced in July that it would be auctioning 40 artworks from its permanent collection. The institution planned to use the estimated $60 million raised from the sale at Sotheby’s to fund renovations and boost the endowment—a clear-cut violation of industry guidelines around deaccessioning.
The sale brought condemnation from across the artworld, with the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors calling for a halt to the sale that would almost certainly see works by
, and the other greats slated to be sold leave the public trust and enter private collections. Other observers, including the editorial board of the Boston Globe
, argued the sale should be allowed to go ahead. For its part, the museum asserted it needed the funds to plug a financial hole and that it was pivoting away from fine art—recasting itself as a science and technology focused institution.
The lawsuits came flying. A group of Rockwell descendants sued to halt the sale, as did members of the museum, alleging the trustees were violating their fiduciary duty by auctioning the work. Those suits were dismissed on November 7th with a judge finding the plaintiffs didn’t have standing to bring the case. (The suit brought by the Berkshire Museum members has since been appealed.) A last minute intervention from the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office (AGO) staved off the sale of the works
, with an appellate justice ruling on November 10th that the Sotheby’s auction could not proceed so the suit could be adjudicated. A wide-reaching investigation into the museum by the AGO is ongoing.
Why it Matters:
However the suit ultimately turns out, its impact on the museum community is already massive. If the Berkshire Museum is allowed to sell, it could make it more difficult to prevent other museums from selling works in their collections to cover operating costs in the future. But even if the museum does win, the protracted, bitter, public, and ultimately embarrassing lawsuits—including the intervention of the AGO—means that institutions from Maine to California will think of what happened in Pittsfield before ever deaccessioning an artwork in violation of industry guidelines in the future.