The New Yorker's Felix Salmon sees little obstacle to Berkshire Museum's art sale
PITTSFIELD — The Berkshire Museum won unusually favorable terms from an auction house a decade ago, a veteran journalist says, and should have been in a position to do so again in 2017, as two of its most famous holdings head to sale.
That finding might shed light on whether the museum could withdraw from a controversial plan to sell 40 works of art without paying a severe financial penalty.
The sales, scheduled to start next month, go against established museum practices and have drawn criticism and support. Museum leaders say the sales will proceed as planned to support a "new vision" for operations of the 114-year-old South Street facility.
Felix Salmon, a New York City-based writer who has long reported on art markets, calculates that when the museum sold three Russian paintings through a Sotheby's auction in the 2009 fiscal year, it was able not only to have seller's fees waived, but to receive a share of the buyer's premium paid to the house.
That extra is known as an "enhanced hammer," in reference to the tool swung when a sale closes.
Salmon has been reporting on — and criticizing — the museum's deaccession plan since it was announced in July.
Last week, he published a 3,000-word article on the sale, "The Lost Masterpieces of Norman Rockwell Country," on The New Yorker magazine's website.
A public relations representative of the museum tried, but failed, to have Salmon taken off the story.
The story in The New Yorker followed several that Salmon, who specializes in business and financial topics, produced this summer for Cause and Effect, an online publication he runs.
In one of those posts, Salmon dug into evidence that the museum's former executive director, Stuart Chase, was able to obtain "enhanced hammer" terms when selling paintings by Boris Dmitrievich Grigoriev. Using some of the museum's own financial reports, Salmon calculated that the sale of the Russian paintings earned the museum $7,220,500.
Of that, he found, $7 million — the full, actual sale price before fees — was channeled into a museum fund called Keep Crane. But an additional $220,500 was made available for operations.
Salmon said auction houses keep details secret but said he long has been interested in the "enhanced hammer" terms some sellers are able to secure. Salmon calculates that the museum was paid 103.15 percent of the "hammer price."
That term refers to the dollar value of the sale, not including subsequent fees.
"Everyone kind of knows that they do it," said Salmon, who said he is "mildly obsessed" with the topic. When exploring terms of the museum's sale of the three Russian paintings, he says he thought, "I've caught an 'enhanced hammer' situation in the wild."
In an Aug. 23 post, Salmon wrote, "If the museum negotiated 3.15 percent enhanced hammer when it sold $8 million of art, how much do you think it has negotiated now that it's selling more than $40 million of art?"
Darrell Rocha, a spokesman for Sotheby's, declined a request from The Eagle that it release documents on its terms with the Berkshire Museum.
The museum did not respond to a similar request Thursday.
Salmon believes that evidence that the museum won extremely favorable auction terms in the 2009 fiscal year suggests that it would have been able to do so again this year.
He said that, compared with obtaining more than 100 percent of the "hammer price," it should have been even easier for the museum to have any withdrawal penalty removed from its Sotheby's contract.
Salmon isn't alone in suggesting that the museum held an advantage in its dealings with Sotheby's. In June, the museum's attorney, Mark Gold, notified the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office about the planned sale. In a letter, Gold said the museum had secured highly favorable terms.
"If you have enough clout as a seller to get 'enhanced hammer,' then you have enough to take out that withdrawal fee clause," Salmon said.
Then again, he said, if the museum anticipated public opposition and wanted to bind itself to the sale, it might have left the withdrawal penalty in.
"They might not have insisted on its removal," Salmon said.
The Eagle asked Rocha, the Sotheby's spokesman, to say whether the auction house is reconsidering the Berkshire Museum sale. No response was received as of Friday.
Salmon said he believes Sotheby's would be reluctant to impose a significant financial penalty on the museum if the auctions are halted. After American works go on sale next month, including two painting by Norman Rockwell, other pieces are scheduled to be auctioned through next spring.
"I would be astonished if Sotheby's insisted on the full amount," Salmon said, assuming that there is a withdrawal penalty. "There would be a firestorm. That's just not a good look for them."
Attempt to block
After seeking interviews in August with museum officials, Salmon said that Carol Bosco Baumann, its publicist, contacted the magazine to question whether he could write fairly about its sale.
Bosco Baumann confirmed to The Eagle that she had concerns about Salmon, given his previous coverage on Cause and Effect.
The day his New Yorker piece went up, Salmon published a postmortem on his story, headlined "The arrogant, unaccountable, and dishonest Berkshire Museum."
A top editor for the magazine responded to Bosco Baumann within minutes of receiving an email Aug. 24.
"I'm confident that concerns you might have about balance can be addressed if Felix is able to hear multiple sides of the story, via the interviews he has requested," Jessica Winters wrote, according to a copy of the email correspondence provided by Salmon.
Bosco Baumann replied: "I'm afraid that I, and others who have worked with him, do not share your confidence in Felix's ability to write this story from a balanced perspective. Is there another path forward?"
The New Yorker story went through the magazine's fact-checking department.
While he went into the story believing the sale was improper for a museum, Salmon said he was prepared to follow the facts obtained through interviewing.
The museum did not grant interviews.
"I've never presented myself as an objective journalist," Salmon told The Eagle. "It is polemical, and I'm perfectly happy to admit that."
In a post Wednesday, he appeals to museum trustees: "It's not too late. Stop this while you can. For the sake of the museum, for the sake of your community, and for the sake of all other museums, everywhere else in America."
Looking ahead, Salmon noted that the attorney general's review remains underway. But he believes that the fate of the works is in the hands of museum leaders.
"Personally, I oppose the sale, but in good faith I can't make the argument that it's illegal," he said.
Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.
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