Rockwell v. Trustees of the Berkshire Museum

2017 Mass. Super. LEXIS 208 (2017)

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Rockwell v. Trustees of the Berkshire Museum

Massachusetts Superior Court
2017 Mass. Super. LEXIS 208 (2017)

Facts

The Berkshire Museum was founded in 1903 to hold and display art and artifacts for the benefit of the public. Decades later, the museum began facing serious financial issues. The museum had been operating at a deficit for years. The trustees (defendants) of the museum commenced a planning process to address its finances. The trustees considered multiple plans over a two-year period, which included ideas like merging with another museum, more aggressive fundraising tactics, and reduced hours and programming. Ultimately, the trustees considered deaccession (i.e., when a museum formally transfers its ownership of a work to another party by sale, exchange, or grant) to be the best option. Deaccessioning items from a museum to raise funds for operations or capital expenses was discouraged within the industry. However, deaccessioning items was neither illegal nor unethical per se. The trustees selected 40 items to deaccession via auction. The two most valuable works were paintings by Norman Rockwell that had been donated by Rockwell himself. Rockwell did not indicate that he wanted his paintings to remain at the museum forever. In fact, Rockwell placed no restrictions or conditions on his gift. Further, neither the museum charter nor any professional or legal authority restricted deaccessioning items. Although, one drawback of the trustees’ deaccessioning plan was that the deaccessioning was expected to lead to a period of freeze-out from the art industry during which accredited museums would not loan exhibits to the museum. Norman Rockwell’s three children (the Rockwells) and four museum members (plaintiffs) brought an action against the trustees and the Massachusetts attorney general (defendant) for breach of fiduciary duty and breach of trust. The Rockwells and the museum members filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to enjoin the auction of any artwork. The attorney general supported the request for an injunction and was granted plaintiff status after the initial hearing. The attorney general asserted that it would seek an injunction if the Rockwells and museum members lacked standing to litigate their claims.

Rule of Law

Issue

Holding and Reasoning (Agostini, J.)

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