an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

Market Madness: Sotheby’s to Auction 13 Berkshire Museum Works this May

Farewell, George Washington.

Notwithstanding its direct relevance to the Berkshire Museum’s mission (which includes both history and art) and the museum’s professed concern for the education of schoolchildren, a portrait of our first President is among its works to be sold at Sotheby’s American Art sale on May 23:

Rembrandt Peale, “George Washington”
Presale estimate: $200,000-300,000

(Presale estimates are as of Sotheby’s September release of the full checklist for the Berkshire deaccessions.)

As the museum announced today, some 13 of the 40 works that on Apr. 5 were approved for sale by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court are headed for auction next month. They are divided among five sales: Impressionist & Modern Art evening sale, May 14; Contemporary evening sale, May 16; European Art, May 22; Old Masters, May 22; American Art, May 23. (You can see the full list for each of these auctions in today’s press release.)

A local favorite, for both its subject matter and its Berkshire roots, is the highest-estimated of the 13 Berkshire works scheduled for auction. These mighty tradesmen will accompany our first President to the American Art sale:

Norman Rockwell, “Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop,” 1940
Presale estimate: $7-10 million
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

As a sop for those who believe all of these works should remain in the public domain, the museum announced that interested public institutions will be offered “extended payment terms” in installments “over six months or longer.”

The biggest sale to an “interested public institution” is being engineered privately, as agreed by the Attorney General. The plan for museum’s star Rockwell, “Shuffleton’s Barbershop,” to be sold to “a nonprofit American museum” will now “be completed,” according to the announcement. That museum, still not identified, “has agreed to place it on prominent display in its collection and loan the painting to the Norman Rockwell Museum for a period of up to two years,” in accordance with the astonishing agreement between the museum and the Massachusetts Attorney General.

There’s a strong likelihood that this much loved painting’s cash-rich new home will be located outside Massachusetts (Crystal Bridges? the Lucas Museum?). This is a particularly puzzling, problematic result, given the Attorney General’s mandate to protect the public interest within the state.

According to the museum’s president, Elizabeth McGraw, the trustees are “hopeful that the sale of these other 13 works will allow us to hold the remaining [26] works that had been approved for deaccession.” That would suggest that “Shuffleton’s” buyer has made a megabucks offer to snare this prize.

Obviating the need for further auctions will likely also depend upon the museum’s getting robust prices for the 13 works to be auctioned next month. Given the energetic activism of grassroots opponents to the disposals, I wouldn’t be surprised to see protesters assembled outside the auction house in a last-ditch attempt to discourage bidders.

Even without the cloud over these disposals, few-to-none of the Berkshire Museum’s works are obvious art-market standouts. What’s more, this is one instance in which museum provenance, often a plus, could be a detriment: It’s not hard to imagine that museums and collectors who have close ties to public institutions may think twice about participating in sales that respected professional organizations have overwhelmingly deplored. (See the Delaware Art Museum’s failed deaccession as a case in point.)

Then what? Dump another 26 works onto the market and hope for the best?

A NOTE TO MY READERS: If you appreciate my coverage, please consider supporting CultureGrrl by clicking the “Donate” button in the righthand column. Contributors of $10 or more are added to my email blast for immediate notification of my new posts.

an ArtsJournal blog