Sale of Norman Rockwell paintings to go ahead

BOSTON • The family of famed American painter Norman Rockwell was upset when a museum wanted to auction off two paintings that he had donated.

But a judge has ruled that auction house Sotheby's can go ahead with next week's auction of art pieces from the Berkshire Museum, including a Rockwell painting worth as much as US$30 million (S$41 million), despite protest by the late artist's sons that their father had donated them for permanent display.

The Massachusetts state judge ruled on Tuesday that the two paintings Rockwell gave to the Pittsfield-based museum, as well as works by Albert Bierstadt, Alexander Calder and Frederic Church, can go on the auction block on Monday. The art in total is valued at as much as US$68 million, Sotheby's has estimated.

Rockwell's sons sued to halt the sale, arguing the paintings, known as Blacksmith Boy - Heel And Toe (1940) and Shuffleton's Barbershop (1950) could be bought by a private collector, never to be seen again.

Massachusetts Attorney-General Maura Healey and former and current museum members also joined the effort to stop the sale. The state argued that a sale not only violated general museum ethics, but also that the trustees chose an "exorbitant" revitalisation plan and upgrades that could cost US$60 million.

Judge John Agostini rejected their arguments, concluding that neither Rockwell's sons, the state of Massachusetts nor former and current museum members had standing to sue to halt the sale.

While the museum's decision generated debate about the rights and responsibilities of museums to sell works, Mr Agostini said the sale would help boost its financial outlook, which is "otherwise bleak".

He also rejected the plaintiffs' argument and testimony from a retired museum curator who said the artist donated the paintings because "they were his favourite oil paintings and he wanted them to stay on display".

"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," Mr Agostini said.

"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."

Sotheby's said in a statement it was "very pleased that the court reaffirmed that the board of trustees acted in good faith and fulfilled its fiduciary duties".

"We are looking forward to successful auctions beginning next week that will ensure a bright future for the Berkshire Museum in support of the community of Pittsfield and western Massachusetts." 

Ms Elizabeth McGraw, president of the museum, said she and the board were grateful to Mr Agostini.

"We believe we acted consistent with our responsibility to this community and our collections, to keep this museum open and strengthen it for generations to come," she added.

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 09, 2017, with the headline 'Sale of Norman Rockwell paintings to go ahead'. Print Edition | Subscribe