PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Berkshire Museum's planned art sale will go forward.
Superior Court Judge John Agostini denied a request for a preliminary injunction, pausing the Sotheby's auction of some 40 pieces of artwork, starting next week and extending into March. Members of the Rockwell family, other donors, and Attorney General Maura Healey filed for the injunction to at least delay the sale. The two hoped for a restraining order of the auctions that are scheduled for next week.
Agostini on Tuesday denied that request, saying the case did not have the "legal merits" to issue the injunction.
"The Attorney General's request to preliminarily enjoin the planned auction is denied. This may very well mean that timeless works by an iconic, local artist will be lost to the public in less than a week's time. No doubt many will be disappointed in this outcome, and they may take little comfort knowing that, in their loss, the rights of a charitable board to make thoughtful decisions to steer its charity through troubled times have been vindicated," wrote Agostini in the decision.
"However, it is the responsibility of the court to act dispassionately and decide cases solely on the legal merits of the claims presented."
The Berkshire Museum announced a "reinvention plan" back in July aimed to turn around annual deficits. The museum opted to auction off the pieces of art to generate an estimated $50 million. Coupled with fundraising of $10 million, the plan is to create an endowment of $40 million to sustain the museum into the future and $20 million in renovations.
But the sale has triggered outrage -- and not just because of the two Norman Rockwell paintings heading to the auction block. Community groups have popped up in numbers and the story has reached a national audience. Those in opposition say the various pieces of work are irreplaceable and that there are other ways to right the museum's financial ship than to sell its most prized possessions.
The two Norman Rockwell pieces were personally donated by the artist to the museum. His children, Thomas, Jarvis, and Peter Rockwell, filed suit alongside numerous donors to the museum claiming the museum is breaking restrictions on the work and breaching its fiduciary responsibilities.
The Rockwells argued that their father gave the paintings to the museum as a gift for the people of Berkshire County and that they can't be sold. Donors argued that the museum has exaggerated its financial condition and selling the work is not the needed action. The attorney general's office signed onto the case and said it needed a delay to the sale to finish an investigation into the plan.
Agostini, however, wasn't convinced the attorney general's office is committed to the lawsuit. Agostini wrote that the office was late in filing a lawsuit and had only joined on at the last instance.
"The AGO evinced apprehension to the very end, even when it was forced to file a motion to attain plaintiff status, the injunction request was carefully limited to be operative only if the plaintiffs have no standing. In other words, the AGO is making every effort to avoid the issuance of an injunction under its name," Agostini wrote.
"I suspect that if the other plaintiffs had not filed suit, the AGO would not have initiated any litigation."
And, ultimately, Agostini ruled that there are no legal restrictions barring the museum from selling the work.
"Judge Agostini's thorough and thoughtful decision recognizes the Berkshire Museum took great care to make sure this important resource can continue to serve the community for generations to come," reads a statement from the museum's legal firm WilmerHale.
Museum officials say the sale will ensure the century-old institution survives well into the future. Despite public outrage, the museum has dug in its heels and is continuing to execute the plan it had laid out to revamp the facility and programming.
"We believe we acted consistent with our responsibility to this community and our collections, to keep this museum open now and strengthen it for generations to come. We are grateful the Judge recognized the care and diligence the Board exercised in arriving at this decision, and that today's decision will ensure we can move forward," reads a statement from Board of Trustees President Elizabeth McGraw.
"Zenas Crane created this museum to provide his less well-traveled neighbors with what he termed 'a window on the world.' We're working to keep that window open."
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