Judge gives green light to contentious museum art sale

BOSTON — A cash-strapped Massachusetts museum can sell dozens of pieces of art, including works by Norman Rockwell, a judge on the state's highest court ruled Thursday.

Justice David Lowy, of the Supreme Judicial Court, approved an agreement reached by Massachusetts' attorney general and the Berkshire Museum that will allow the museum to sell up to 40 works so it can keep its doors open.

The museum celebrated the ruling, which came after months of legal wrangling over the future of the art.

"We recognize this decision may not please those who have opposed the museum's plans," said Elizabeth McGraw, of the museum's board of trustees. "Still, we hope people will be able to move forward in a constructive way to help us secure and strengthen the future of this museum, at a time when our community needs it more than ever."

Under the plan given the green light by the judge, Rockwell's "Shuffleton's Barbershop" will be sold to another U.S. museum.

The Berkshire Museum says it will sell the rest of the artwork until it reaches $55 million in proceeds. Officials say they may not have to sell all 39 other pieces, which include Rockwell's "Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop" and works by Alexander Calder, Albert Bierstadt and George Henry Durrie.

The decision likely ends the lengthy legal battle over the sale. It comes a day before the deadline the museum said it was facing in order to ensure it could go to auction this spring.

Michael Keating, an attorney for a group of Berkshire County residents who challenged the museum's plans, said he doesn't believe they have any further recourse.

Nicholas O'Donnell, who represented another group of museum members, said he couldn't immediately say whether they would continue to fight the sale.

"It is a sad day both for the people of Massachusetts and the true custodians, working tirelessly to preserve and protect our local and national heritage, throughout America," O'Donnell said in an email.

Rockwell's sons, who initially opposed the sale, dropped their challenge after it was announced that "Shuffleton's Barbershop" would remain in public view.

The museum that buys "Shuffleton's Barbershop" will loan the work to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge for a period of time before lending it to other museums in the state, according to the agreement.

Justice Lowy said in his ruling that the attorney general's investigation into the museum's finances found its "survival would be impossible without the proposed sale."

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Follow Alanna Durkin Richer at http://twitter.com/aedurkinricher. Read more of her work at http://bit.ly/2hIhzDb.

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