Foley Hoag Seeks Temporary Restraining Order Against Trustees of the Berkshire Museum to Prevent Sale of Significant Artwork

October 20, 2017

Foley Hoag LLP filed a complaint and motion for a temporary restraining order in Massachusetts Superior Court on October 20, 2017 on behalf of several plaintiffs, including the three sons of renowned artist Norman Rockwell. The motion, filed against the Trustees of the Berkshire Museum and naming Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, as a necessary party, aims to halt the Museum’s plan to sell 40 significant works of art, including two paintings given to the Museum by Norman Rockwell.

In July 2017, the Berkshire Museum announced plans to deaccession the 40 works of art, worth tens of millions of dollars, asserting the action was necessary to provide proceeds for capital expenditures of $20 million and the creation of a $40 million endowment. The Complaint alleges that the Museum had contracted with Sotheby’s for a public auction in November before it announced its plans to the public, acting in breach of its fiduciary duties and trust without legal authority to sell the art.

Plaintiffs and Foley Hoag further allege the Museum’s planned sale is contrary to a Massachusetts statute establishing the Museum, which requires the Museum to maintain any gifts it receives “for the people of Berkshire County and the general public.” The Complaint further alleges that independent financial analysis of the Museum’s financial situation demonstrates that the Museum’s claim of financial necessity is grossly exaggerated.

“The Berkshire Museum’s planned deaccession violates the Museum’s establishing statute, promises made to donors and the fiduciary obligations of its Trustees,” said Foley Hoag partner Michael B. Keating. “This move is also antithetical to the Museum’s stated charitable purpose, and is financially unnecessary.”

Artworks earmarked for sale include pieces by Norman Rockwell, Alexander Calder, Frederic Church, George Henry Durrie, Albert Bierstadt and other artists, and are being held in trust to benefit the public, both in Berkshire County and throughout the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the complaint states. Two Rockwell paintings to be auctioned off include “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” and “Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop,” which Rockwell donated with the intent they be permanently displayed at the Museum, the complaint adds.  Shuffleton’s Barbershop is regarded by many art experts as Rockwell’s finest painting.

Plaintiffs include Rockwell’s three sons, Thomas Rockwell, Jarvis Rockwell and Peter Rockwell; artist Tom Patti, who has two works in the Museum; Berkshire County residents and Museum members James Lamme, Donald MacGillis, Jonas Dovydenas and Jean Rousseau.

“We hope to preserve the Museum's treasures especially for the families of Berkshire County,”said Lamme, a resident of Egremont, Mass. “Norman Rockwell and the other artists would be particularly happy for the children.”

The Complaint also states that Attorney General Healey’s office is reviewing the legality of the proposed sale.

Along with Keating, plaintiffs are represented by Foley Hoag attorneys Martha Coakley and Daniel McFadden.

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