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Appeals Court Delays Berkshire Museum Art Auction

The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
Creative Commons
The Berkshire Museum in a file photo.

Updated Nov. 11, 2017 at 8:15 a.m.

A Massachusetts appeals court judge has blocked the auction, scheduled to start next week, of dozens of works of art owned by the Berkshire Museum.

The preliminary injunction issued Friday night followed an appeal earlier in the day by state Attorney General Maura Healey.

The first batch of art -- including a pair of Norman Rockwell paintings the artist himself donated to the museum -- was scheduled for sale Monday later afternoon at Sotheby's in New York.

Superior Court Judge John Agostini this week denied a request from Healey and other plaintiffs to stop the sale.

In its appeal filed Friday, the AG's office said Agostini "abuse[d] [his] discretion through clear errors of law." And it questioned why the auction has to happen now, before the legal fight is exhausted.

"If these objects are sold, there likely will be little if any opportunity to get them back," the AG wrote. "There is no indication that the museum is in immediate financial crisis."

Appeals Court Associate Justice Joseph Trainor granted Healey's request, ruling "the balance of the risk of irreparable harm...weighs in favor of" the attorney general.

According to the court's electronic docket, the Berkshire Museum is prohibited from "selling, auctioning, or otherwise disposing of any of the artworks that have been listed for auction" until at least December 11, while the appeal is considered.

Museum officials have said the proceeds will stabilize its finances and fund a major renovation.

Earlier on Friday, the museum's lawyer, William F. Lee, issued a statement calling the attorney general's appeal "misguided." 

"Continuing this litigation jeopardizes vital educational, cultural and economic resources in a struggling community, placing the special interests of a portion of the well-funded arts community over people, especially young people, really in need," the statement read.

New England Public Radio's Adam Frenier contributed to this report.

Sam Hudzik has overseen local news coverage on New England Public Media since 2013. He manages a team of about a dozen full- and part-time reporters and hosts.
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