After a highly acrimonious, drawn-out court battle over the sale of several works from its permanent collection, a Massachusetts museum is headed back to the salerooms to raise more funds.
As you may know from these pages or elsewhere, the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts is in the process of reinventing itself into some sort of touchy-feely, gee-whizz, Chuck E. Cheese location. Any time you read that a museum is developing “cutting-edge technology and new interpretive techniques”, you should question the long-term thinking behind such an effort. (I have two words for you: Epcot Center.)
In order to bring about its own destruction, the Berkshire needs more funds. Having already sold several works, including two Norman Rockwells donated to it by the artist, but having failed to reach its $55 million fundraising target, the Berkshire will now send an additional nine works to Sotheby’s. Seven of these will be sold privately, and two will be sold in an upcoming auction of Asian art.
The Berkshire faces more than just the uncertainty of the market when it comes to deaccessioning pieces from its permanent collection, although it has its defenders among local newspaper columnists who know nothing about the art world. It has become something of a pariah among other American cultural institutions as a result of its actions so far, regardless of the legality of its being able to sell the works in its collection. For example, the museum has already been sanctioned by the powerful Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) as a result of the first dispersal, and part of that sanction involves the AAMD warning its members not to loan anything to the Berkshire or collaborate with it on any exhibitions. No word yet on whether greater sanctions will be imposed by the AAMD as a result of this forthcoming sale.
It’s possible that some of the works will end up in public collections, but of course there’s really no way to guarantee that when you’re arranging a sale via a third party. Current figures suggest that, even without the Calder, which Sotheby’s has not put an estimate on, the sale of these pieces should put the museum over the top in terms of its goals. However, if numbers come in at the lower end of pre-sale estimates, the Berkshire is prepared to sell off a third group of objects from its collection to make up tany remaining shortfall.
Among the pieces slotted to go in this round are works by several major American artists of the 19th and 20th centuries. “Giant Redwood Trees of California’ (c. 1874) by Albert Bierstadt is a misty, enveloping painting, lacking the artist’s best element – i.e., his depiction of mountain peaks – but expertly drawing the eye through the landscape to the waterfall at the base of the giant trees. My prediction is that this will probably go to a California-based collector or institution.
Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s “Two Ladies in a Drawing Room/The White Dress” (1921) is, from a certain standpoint, exactly the sort of thing that collectors want when they are out to acquire a work by this artist, who was always highly regarded by other artists and architects such as James Whistler and Stanford White, but is not quite the household name that he deserves to be. Dewing’s enigmatic, quiet pictures of ethereal ladies in Edwardian dresses, who almost seem to float through the spaces which he depicts, are highly distinctive. The estimate of $400-600k is probably right, since from the point of view of art history this is a bit late for Dewing, who was at the height of his powers in the decade or two before World War I, but stopped exhibiting not long after this work was completed.
Finally, Benjamin West’s “Daniel Interpreting to Belshazzar the Handwriting on the Wall” (1775) carries an estimate of $200-300k, which I suspect is somewhat low as West’s religious pictures have been attracting a lot of attention in recent years on both sides of the Atlantic. The painting dramatically depicts the scene usually referred to as “The Feast of Belshazzar” from the Bible, in which the Prophet Daniel is called before Crown Prince Belshazzar of Babylon to interpret some mysterious writing that has appeared on the wall just as the prince and his courtiers are enjoying a feast using the sacred vessels stolen from the Temple in Jerusalem. Daniel prophesies that Belshazzar is doomed, which makes this a rather a fitting image, I suppose, for the Berkshire’s efforts when taken in their entirety.