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“Shaftsbury” Shafted; Church Besmirched: The Berkshire Museum’s Lose-Lose Auctions

The Berkshire Museum’s deplorable disposals have not gone well. Even its board president, in a statement issued yesterday (see below), conceded that the museum was “disappointed” with the results for the 13 works offered at Sotheby’s auctions this month. The museum’s board and administrators should consider holding onto their remaining chips from this bad gamble, rather than doubling down on their folly by selling more works.

I was in Sotheby’s salesroom yesterday morning  when four of the 40 works that had been approved for sale by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court went on the block. Bidding was sluggish for the star lot, Norman Rockwell‘s “Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop,” 1940, which barely reached the low end of its $7-10 million presale estimate of hammer price. (Final price, with buyer’s premium, was $8.13 million.)

Installation outside the salesroom at Sotheby’s yesterday: Norman Rockwell’s “Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop,” 1940, on left
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The second-highest valued of the four Berkshire Museum works in that sale (to the right of the Rockwell, above) didn’t find a buyer. Here’s what I live-tweeted from the auction about that failure:

More news about this (non)sale came today in an email from a Berkshire Museum spokesperson:

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) has acquired Frederic Edwin Church’s masterpiece, “Valley of Santa Isabel New Granada,” 1875, from the collection of the Berkshire Museum through a private sale arranged by Sotheby’s.

It’s a lovely picture, but calling it “Church’s masterpiece” is an exaggeration. In fact, the absence of bidders at Sotheby’s estimated price had been foreseen by Kevin Murphy, American art curator at another Berkshires institution, the Williams College Museum of Art (which yesterday announced its new director). He had honed his market smarts at his previous gig—curator at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, an actively acquiring institution generously bankrolled by founder Alice Walton.

Kevin Murphy at Crystal Bridges
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Last September, Kevin had emailed to me the following analysis regarding Sotheby’s optimistic expectations for the Berkshire Museum’s offerings in general and the Church in particular. (My own comment is in italics.):

Have you looked at the estimates?

Time will tell, but $5-7 million for that Frederic Church? It’s a scene remembered 25 years later [visited South America in 1853] by an artist just struck with debilitating rheumatoid arthritis. The foreground is overworked, the background, under.

Yesterday, in another email (in which he granted me permission to publish the above comment), Murphy added:

This is so similar to the Delaware debacle [my link, not his]: You get a desperate museum and the sharks circle. You also have to wonder what Sotheby’s was basing its estimates on, and why the [museum’s] trustees didn’t have anyone doing even cursory research into the market on their end.

That said, Murphy had tweeted this about how the Church and several other Berkshire castoffs had been crucial art resources for his region:

PAFA’s press release announcing its new acquisition celebrated its being “the first work by Church” to enter its permanent collection, notwithstanding the fact that he had “exhibited at PAFA multiple times from 1851 to 1867.” Curator Anna Marley extolled it as “the largest and most significant painting of the Hudson River School in [PAFA’s] collection.” (As expected, a PAFA spokesperson declined to tell me this afternoon how much her museum had paid for it.)

Trying to put a good face on a bad situation, Elizabeth McGraw, the Berkshire Museum’s president, issued this statement yesterday after Sotheby’s American art auction had concluded but before the private deal with PAFA was struck:

These auctions move the Berkshire Museum important steps forward by providing resources needed to secure the museum’s future. With the close of today’s auction, the Berkshire Museum will realize net proceeds of approximately $42 million, including the private sale of Shuffleton’s Barbershop.

Considering the unpredictable nature of the art market, we are disappointed but not surprised to fall short of our expected goal by close to $13 million. The agreement with the Attorney General allowed for the sale of up to 40 works to reach $55 million.

Only 13 works were offered at auctions this month, with 26 held back. [Another work, “Shuffleton’s Barbershop,” was sold privately, at an undisclosed price, to the Lucas Museum.] We will take time now to consider how we will proceed, through possible auction and private sale, to gain the additional resources needed. We are eager to continue the important work of planning for the future.”

The lackluster results for the Berkshire 13 at Sotheby’s echo the recent underperformance of the La Salle 16 at Christie’s. Both disposals flouted professional standards requiring that proceeds from museums’ art sales be used only for art acquisitions (as decreed by the Association of Art Museum Directors) and/or for direct care of collections (American Alliance of Museums). Museum provenance, which sometimes boosts auction prices, can depress them when the intended use of the proceeds is to fund capital projects and beef up endowment.

It they come to their senses after licking their wounds from this month’s bloodbath, the Berkshire Museum’s leaders should seek ways to reinvigorate their institution without further evisceration of the collection. Of the 13 works offered this month at Sotheby’s, nine failed to reach the auction house’s expectations. Two (the Rockwell and a Picabia) hammered within Sotheby’s presale estimates of their hammer prices; two works by 16th-century Netherlandish painter Adriaen Isenbrant handily outdid expectations.

Here’s the pricier of the Isenbrants:

Adriaen Isenbrant, “The Flight into Egypt”
Hammer price: $620,000 ($759,000 with fees) vs. $200,000 high estimate

Berkshire residents protesting outside of Sotheby’s before yesterday’s sale were bound to lose, no matter how these sales turned out.

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

If the sales did well, this could haven been seen as vindication of deplorable deaccessions, emboldening other financially challenged institutions to take the easy way out of their financial difficulties. If the sales underperformed (as happened), it might be an indication that potential bidders were persuaded by the protesters’ objections and didn’t want to be enablers of unethical practices. But this could lead to the Berkshire Museum’s disposing of even more works, until the previously stated goal of $55 million is reached—the “doubling-down” scenario.

The Berkshire Museum should stop taking crapshoots, leave the casino, and follow the rules of responsible stewardship, rather than raiding its own collection to bankroll capital projects and fill budgetary gaps. If the current management can’t figure how to do this, then new management should.

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