Legal action brought by Rockwell heirs against Berkshire Museum

Posted on: October 25, 2017 by

Following our recent post on the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, legal action has now been taken by Norman Rockwell’s heirs against the Museum in relation to the upcoming auction sale of works from the collection.

On 20th October, Norman Rockwell’s sons, Thomas, Jarvis and Peter Rockwell, along with other museum members and donors, filed a lawsuit and a motion for a temporary restraining order to prevent the sale of two of Rockwell’s paintings, included among a number of other works, to be auctioned by Sotheby’s for the benefit of the Berkshire Museum.

With only three weeks to go before Sotheby’s American Art auction on 13th November, these new developments have rocked the Berkshire Museum’s deaccession plans.

During the summer, the Berkshire Museum announced that it would auction several works from its collection, including Shuffleton’s Barbershop (1950) and Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop (1940) by Norman Rockwell, for a combined estimate of $40 million USD.

The uproar was immediate.  The American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors were quick to condemn the move, issuing an open letter to the institution in relation to the deaccessioning.  In September, the Massachusetts Culture Council also released a statement condemning the sale in no uncertain terms. The Massachusetts Attorney General has also confirmed it is reviewing the legality of the sale, the results of which are still unknown at the time of writing.  The Berkshire Museum has since withdrawn its membership from the Smithsonian Institution, of which it had been an affiliate since 2013, as it no longer complies with the American Alliance of Museum’s guidelines for the use of proceeds from deaccession.

Finally, on 20th October, proceedings were filed for a temporary restraining order and a complaint against the Trustees of the Berkshire Museum before the Massachusetts Superior Court.  The Rockwell family have also raised the possibility of a suit based on the violation of the donor’s intent.

The petitioners, represented by Michael Keating of Boston firm Foley Hoag LLP, argue that the “planned deaccession violates the Museum’s governing statute, promises made to donors and the fiduciary obligations of its Trustees”. It is also alleged that the Berkshire Museum was less than forthcoming about its plans to deaccession the works, having set the wheels in motion with Sotheby’s well before the sale was made public.  Financially, it is deemed that the Berkshire Museum misrepresented its main motive for the move by exaggerating its financial woes.

The Berkshire Museum, through its lawyer William F. Lee of Wilmer Hale, responded that the motion was “factually and legally flawed” and that the museum was “well within its right to deaccession works.”  In addition, the Berkshire Museum considers that its interactive and technology-oriented ‘New Vision’ justifies deaccessioning works so as to provide a “unique educational experience for children” and “respect for the vision of founder Zenas Crane”.

Requests for temporary restraining orders are often followed by requests for more permanent ones and it is likely that the merits of the case will be judged at a later date.  The present petition is a short term measure to derail the Sotheby’s auction, but if it fails, and should the auction proceed, Rockwell’s works could be sold into a private collection or an institution abroad, depriving the community of Massachusetts of these culturally important works.

Even though the hearing is scheduled to take place on 1st November, it has since been announced that Sotheby’s will be removing 15 of the original works scheduled for the 13th November auction. It is unclear whether these include the Rockwells.