Agreement OKs sale of Rockwell paintings

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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — If approved by Massachusetts' top court, the Berkshire Museum will sell Norman Rockwell's "Shuffleton's Barbershop," its most valuable work, on the way to drawing $55 million out of its collection.

But the work will be sold to a nonprofit museum in the United States, and four months after the transaction will spend 18 to 24 months on display at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., which is not the buyer.

The museum declined to identify who the purchaser will be or the amount that will be paid for the painting, which is considered one of Rockwell's masterworks. Rockwell painted "Shuffleton's Babershop" and "Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop," another artwork slated for sale, during his 13 years as a resident of Arlington. The artist donated both paintings directly to the museum.

Under the terms of the agreement between the museum and Attorney General's office, made public on Friday, Feb. 7, the agreement must be approved by a single justice of the Supreme Judicial Court. It ends months of litigation between the museum and Attorney General Maura Healey over the proposed deaccession, which the museum claims is necessary to assure its long-term viability.

After the initial sale, all of the 40 works that the museum marked for deaccession and sale last July will be eligible to be sold, but only until proceeds hit a cap of $55 million. Proceeds up to $50 million could be used for any purpose, according to the agreement. Any sum after that up to $55 million can be used for the benefit of the museum's collection, including its planned renovation.

If the petition to the SJC succeeds, the museum will be back in the driver's seat, able to sell premier works from its collection to heal its troubled finances.

However, a group of plaintiffs who sued the museum to stop the sale plans to continue its legal efforts. Nicholas M. O'Donnell of the Boston law firm Sullivan & Worcester LLP said his clients, James and Kristin Hatt and Elizabeth Weinberg, all of Lenox, will seek to intervene in the newly filed case. That kind of filing, if allowed by the court, can come from any party that can be shown to have an interest in a case or be affected by its outcome.

If granted intervenor status, the Lenox residents can be expected to reprise arguments that emerged through four months of litigation. The development could impede the museum's request for quick action by the SJC.

A separate group of plaintiffs is considering its legal options, according to Michael B. Keating of the Boston firm Foley Hoag. That group includes three of Rockwell's sons — Thomas, Jarvis and Peter — and others from Berkshire County.

Interviews with attorneys and a review of correspondence and court documents suggest that Healey, who in November lost the only court ruling to date on the issue, faced the likelihood of coming up short again, due to a state law that gives the office oversight of public charities, but limited say over how they are run.

Rather than take a stand against what the art world decried as an unethical deaccession, Healey's office appears to have clung to a narrower role in public charities law, much to the disappointment of those opposed to the sale.

"That represents a capitulation, and that is more than disappointing," Hope Davis, an art appraiser with a home in Great Barrington, said of the state's role in the agreement. "The solution is very short-sighted and very painful."

Margaret Rockwell, who manages the Norman Rockwell Family Agency on behalf of the late artist's descendants, said family members have mixed feelings about the agreement — regret, and partial relief.

"We are relieved that the Berkshire Museum and the Attorney General have come to a compromise that will keep 'Shuffleton's Barbershop' available to the American public," Rockwell said. "We regret that the painting won't stay permanently in the Berkshires."

Under the agreement revealed Friday, "Shuffleton's" would be purchased by a nonprofit museum that has agreed to loan it, 120 days after the transaction, to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge for exhibit for up to two years.

Neither the sale price nor the buyer were identified Friday by the museum.

Elizabeth McGraw, president of the museum's board, said Friday she did not know if it will be possible to retain the other painting Rockwell gave to the museum, "Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop."

Laurie Norton Moffatt, CEO and executive director of the Rockwell museum, said her institution did not participate in settlement talks between the attorney general and the Pittsfield museum.

The Stockbridge museum was "not a party" to the agreement, she said, and only learned last week it might be called upon to play a role in the resolution of the case.

That came in the form of not-so-hypothetical question: Would it accept a loan of "Shuffleton's Barbershop" if it were purchased by another museum?

Norton Moffatt indicated the answer was easy.

"Of course the museum said that it would be very pleased to accept a loan of this very important work for as long as the prospective institution was willing to loan it," she said by email Sunday, in response to questions from The Eagle.

While no timetable is set for a decision, the museum is asking the court to advance the case quickly, perhaps in time for spring art sales, to avoid being affected by any slump in the art market.

In its main filing to the SJC, signed under the penalty of perjury, museum officials say the institution got into financial trouble despite "robust fundraising operations" due to shifts in the economic climate in the Berkshires that deprived them of major donors.

With an endowment valued at $6.2 million at the end of 2017, the museum said, it risked closing in the "next several years." Last summer, the estimate was six to eight years.

Further, the filing says that major building needs have gone unaddressed.

The museum asks the court to act quickly because the unidentified buyer's offer is time-limited.

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

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