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With Berkshire Museum Auction On Hold, Art Value May Have Already Dropped

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

Berkshire Museum lawyers are asking the state appeals court to quickly decide whether it can auction off parts of its art collection -- including two paintings by Norman Rockwell. The court last week issued an injunction halting the sale. 

One big question now: Will the delay affect how much the art gets at auction, if there is one?

The injunction was issued just three days before the first batch of the Berkshire Museum collection was scheduled for auction. It's the latest ruling in a legal battle between the museum and auction opponents, including three of Norman Rockwell's sons and the state attorney general's office.

The museum wants to use the money to pay for renovations and to boost its endowment.

In an interview last month, Elizabeth McGraw, head of the museum's board, initially shrugged off the suggestion that the controversy would have a negative impact on a potential sale.

"I actually think it may have had an opposite effect," McGraw said. "It certainly brought attention to these pieces. I think that's a question that remains to be seen. I'm confident that it's going to be a successful auction as we move forward."

McGraw made that comment, though, before the appeals court halted the auction.

Now museum officials and lawyers have told the court, a long delay could make it hard for auction house Sotheby's to generate interest from potential buyers, which could be "disastrous for the Museum."

But the value of the art may have already taken a hit. David Kusin is founder of a Texas firm that studies art industry economics. He said research suggests that when top dollar art like the two Rockwells doesn't sell the first time it's scheduled, for whatever reason, its value drops somewhere between 30 and 40 percent for up to ten years.

And that doesn't even take into account the months-long controversy that's surrounded this auction.

"If these objects had been besmirched, as it were, it'll add another 10 to 15 percent impairment in price," Kusin said.

That's somewhere between 40 and 55 percent, all told.

Kusin said one thing that might keep potential buyers away: the risk of getting caught up in a lawsuit after the sale.

"The fact that it's Rockwell's heirs and family [who] are disgruntled by this adds to the opprobrium. It adds to the weight of liability of anyone who would acquire these pictures," he said.

Sotheby's originally pegged the sale price of the two Rockwell paintings at between $27 and $40 million combined -- money the museum was counting on to fund the bulk of what it calls its "new vision."

Adam joined NEPM as a freelance reporter and fill-in operations assistant during the summer of 2011. For more than 15 years, Adam has had a number stops throughout his broadcast career, including as a news reporter and anchor, sports host and play-by-play announcer as well as a producer and technician.
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