The three sons of the late artist Norman Rockwell are among those asking a judge to stop the auctioning off of 40 artworks owned by Berkshire Museum  including two by the famed American painter.

The suit, filed Friday, claims the museum violated its duty to act in the public interest and broke promises made to donors, especially Norman Rockwell, who personally gave "Shuffleton's Barbershop" and "Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop" to Berkshire Museum's permanent collection.

Rockwell sons Thomas, Jarvis and Peter filed the suit along with six others, comprised of museum donors and members, a business and an artist, according to the 14-page complaint.

The complaint also asks the court to void the contract Berkshire Museum has with Sotheby's.

In written statements, both museum leadership and Sotheby's dismissed the allegations and said the auctions would proceed as planned, starting next month.

"We believe we have strong legal grounds" for the sale, Berkshire Museum Trustee President Elizabeth "Buzz" McGraw wrote.

The exhibition "Window on the World" at the Berkshire Museum shows various pieces of its collection, including a death mask of Napoléon Bonaparte.
Carrie Saldo

A "New Vision"

About two years ago Mcgraw and other Berkshire Museum trustees began to study a way to differentiate the museum from others in the culturally rich Berkshires — home to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, The Clark Art Institute, and others — and help stabilize its troubled finances.

The museum announced what it calls its $60 million "New Vision" in July. It will lean into science and natural history and rely less on art. Trustees plan to use auction proceeds to stabilize its finances and partially fund a major renovation.

Sotheby's has estimated Berkshire Museum's artworks will fetch a combined $46.5 million to $68 million at auction.

"Saying Grace," the last significant Rockwell to be auctioned, sold for $46 million, double its pre-auction estimate.

"The museum board feels that we have gone through this very extensive process and we have looked at all the available options available for funding," McGraw told WGBH in a previous interview. "We recognize that it is painful for many people to see these pieces of art go, we need to make this sacrifice to grow and change as an institution and bring us into the 21st century."

Internationally renowned artist Tom Patti is a plaintiff in the lawsuit. He has three installations on permanent display at Berkshire Museum, two of which are named in the complaint. The museum owns the works but agreed not to modify or alter the site-specific works without Patti's consent, which he has not given. The planned renovation of the museum would require them to be moved.

Patti says the 40 works were donated to the people of Berkshire county and were not meant to be sold.

"For me it’s a travesty," Patti said. "Somehow the leadership of the museum at this time decided to monetize the collection and to strip bare the most important artworks in possession of the museum."

Zenas Crane founded the downtown Pittsfield venue in 1903. The world traveler was an extensive collector and helped launch the city's first art museum by donating many of the art, science and natural history objects he had gathered. He regarded it as a "window on the world."

The museum is now home to some 40,000 items, including about 2,400 pieces of fine art.

The lawsuit alleges the trustees’ planned sale would essentially liquidate all of its assets. The value of the museum's property and equipment, outside of its art collection, is less than $10 million, according the court documents.

It also alleges the sale violates Berkshire Museum's founding mission – "to receive, hold, and display works of fine art for the benefit of the people of Pittsfield, Berkshire County, and the general public."

The museum's lawyer, Mark Gold, has said the planned sale was not a "material change" of its collection nor were any items subject to donor restrictions that would prohibit their sale. 

By The Numbers

The museum has said it has an annual average structural operating deficit of $1.15 million and will close within eight years without the planned sale.

But Stephen Sheppard, an expert in creative economy finances and a Williams College professor, has a different perspective.

His analysis of Berkshire Museum's books showed a smaller shortfall – about $667,000. An endowment of about $14 million would eliminate its deficit, he said. 

"And a $14 million capital campaign seems well within the grasp of the museum and the community itself," Sheppard said.

While the board is in the middle of a $10 million capital campaign, it has repeatedly said that's the absolute limit of what it can raise from the public.

The Massachusetts Cultural Council is also skeptical of the museum's claim that it must sell the artwork to survive. It has called the sale "a violation of the public trust."

Attorney General Maura Healey's review of the planned sale, which began this summer, is on-going.

Healey is also named as a "necessary party" in the lawsuit alongside museum trustees. Under state law, the attorney general must be notified whenever a lawsuit is filed against a public charity or non-profit, which that office oversees.

Emily Snyder, a spokeswoman for the office said that Healey will file a response to the complaint in court.

Outside of the state, the sale has drawn criticism from a number of professional museum organizations. They say the sale of museum items should only be used to care for or add to a collection.

Some Berkshire Museum patrons on a recent day were unaware of its planned “New Vision.”

But Dan Wallis was aware, and he said it’s a vision the region needs. 

"We have top notch art museums, what we don't have is a really good science museum, what we don't have is a really well put together understanding of arts and humanities as whole," he said. "And everything that I have seen being put together as part of the master plan really expands on that. It makes them singular."

The first auction dedicated to American artworks, which includes both Rockwell paintings —“Shuffleton's Barbershop” and “Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop” —  is scheduled for November 13.

The auction catalog posted online lists fewer paintings than Berkshire Museum had announced it would sell. It's unclear why. Neither museum leadership or Sotheby's press office returned requests for comment.