After Months of Gridlock, the Berkshire Museum and Attorney General Finally Reach an Agreement on Art Sale

As part of the deal, Norman Rockwell's Shuffleton's Barbershop will remain on public view.

After months of protest, outrage, and legal wrangling over a planned sale of 40 important artworks from its collection, the Berkshire Museum has finally reached an agreement with the Massachusetts attorney general.

The agreement specifies that the museum can sell all 40 works—but with one major caveat. Once the proceeds from the sale reach $55 million, it cannot sell any more art.

The most notable part of the deal: Norman Rockwell’s celebrated Shuffleton’s Barbershop—perhaps the best-known work the Berkshire sought to sell—will remain on public view. An as-yet-unidentified nonprofit American museum has agreed to purchase the painting.

The finer points of the acquisition still need to be finalized and the entire agreement is subject to approval by the state supreme court. But if all goes according to plan, the work would be loaned to the Norman Rockwell Museum—located not far from the Berkshire—for up to two years. The new owner will also explore subsequently loaning the work to other Massachusetts museums before it leaves the state for its new home.

Norman Rockwell, Shuffleton's Barbershop (1950). Courtesy of the Berkshire Museum.

Norman Rockwell, Shuffleton’s Barbershop
(1950). Courtesy of the Berkshire Museum.

The price of the Rockwell, determined in a private sale brokered by Sotheby’s, was not disclosed. But the auction house had placed an estimate of $20–30 million on the work before a bevy of lawsuits put the brakes on the planned public auction.

Although it remains a mystery which museum that agreed to buy the Rockwell, speculation immediately turned to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the deep-pocketed Arkansas institution founded by Walmart heiress Alice Walton. (It wouldn’t be the first time Crystal Bridges has stepped in to buy a trove of work from a struggling museum amid a firestorm of controversy. In 2012, it purchased a major group of American artworks donated by the artist Georgia O’Keeffe from Fisk University in Nashville.) Crystal Bridges did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, others have suggested that the work might be headed to the forthcoming Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles, founded by Star Wars creator George Lucas. The fact that the museum is not due to open until 2021 might explain the lengthy loan to local institutions. A representative for the Berkshire Museum declined to name the buyer, as did others involved with the sale and litigation.

The broader deal also dictates how the museum can use the proceeds from the sale of the 40 works. It can spend the first $50 million however it wants; the next $5 million must be used to benefit the collection, acquisitions, or the museum’s divisive New Vision plan, which aims to retool the museum as a destination for science and natural history.

The Berkshire has agreed to sell the works in three batches. If it hits $55 million before it sells all 40 works, the leftover objects will remain in the collection. Some works may be sold privately and some preference will be given to buyers who can commit to keeping the art on public view.

“The compromise made to reach the agreement is a testament to the museum’s trustees and the office of the Attorney General,” said Pittsfield’s mayor, Linda Tyer, in a statement. “The museum and the Attorney General are moving forward together. Let this decision inspire all of us to rally behind the future success of our museum.”

Not everyone was pleased by the outcome, however. In a joint statement, the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors said: “While the negotiated agreement with the Berkshire Museum may satisfy legal standards, it falls far short of ethical standards and best practices for museums. This is indeed a sad day for the arts community in the Berkshires and the museum community across the country.” The organizations described the sale of the works as “a violation of the public trust” that might discourage donors from giving art to museums in the future.

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