Lenox plaintiffs seek say on SJC review of Berkshire Museum art sale

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PITTSFIELD — Lenox residents who sued to stop Berkshire Museum art sales will press on with their fight, despite losing a big ally.

The attorney for James and Kristin Hatt and Elizabeth Weinberg says his clients are "stunned" that the Attorney General's Office reached an agreement with the museum last week, after faulting the museum's conduct as recently as in a Jan. 16 court filing.

That settlement paves the way for the sale of up to 40 works from the Pittsfield institution's collection. It sets conditions on the sales and needs to be approved by the state's top court.

The first work to be sold will be Norman Rockwell's "Shuffleton's Barbershop." In a condition applauded by many, the buyer will be an unidentified nonprofit museum, rather than a private collector.

And the new owner has agreed to lend the painting for exhibition for up to two years at the Stockbridge museum that bears the late artist's name. The sale price for the painting was not disclosed.

Nonetheless, the two Lenox residents had sharp words Tuesday for the office of Attorney General Maura Healey, saying lawyers there failed to protect museum members who oppose the sale from "any further dissipation of the museum's mission."

"This proposed outcome abandons the protective duty and oversight that the museum's members expected from the Attorney General's Office," the Hatts said in a statement through their lawyer. "This agreement does not even attempt a compromise, and instead liquidates the core holding of the museum into funds to be used with no oversight."

Emily Snyder, a spokeswoman for Healey, said the office engaged in an "extensive and careful" investigation of the proposed art sale.

"This agreement adheres to Massachusetts charities law, ensures the survival of the Berkshire Museum, and preserves 'Shuffleton's Barbershop' for public view," she said, when asked to respond to the Hatts' comments.

Nicholas M. O'Donnell of the Boston law firm Sullivan & Worcester LLP said his clients will seek to intervene in the newly filed case before a single justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Suffolk County. That kind of filing, if allowed by the court, can come from any party that can be shown to have an interest in a case or be affected by its outcome.

If granted intervenor status, the Lenox residents can be expected to reprise arguments that emerged through four months of litigation. The development could impede the museum's request for quick action by the SJC.

A separate group of plaintiffs is considering its legal options, according to Michael B. Keating of the Boston firm Foley Hoag.

That group includes three of Rockwell's sons — Thomas, Jarvis and Peter — and others from Berkshire County.

The issue of the art sales has been contested in two Massachusetts courts and is being watched nationally.

In a breakthrough Friday, Healey and the museum announced they had come to terms, days after the state concluded its investigation into the sale and a series of injunctions blocking sales expired.

O'Donnell questioned Tuesday how Healey's office could execute an about-face on the art sales, just weeks after saying in a Massachusetts Appeals Court filing that museum officials breached their fiduciary duties.

He said his clients will also continue to contest, in the Appeals Court, a Berkshire Superior Court judge's finding Nov. 7 that they lacked legal standing on the issue.

The Lenox plaintiffs sued in October to block the sales, the second group to challenge the museum's plan to use proceeds to build an endowment able to protect it from yearly budget deficits of over $1 million.

If sanctioned by the SJC, the museum will be allowed to sell up to $55 million worth of art. The agreement puts no restrictions on how the museum can use most of the money.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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