Recent Rockwell buyer won't say whether it made it a two-fer

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PITTSFIELD — While no one yet claims to own the Norman Rockwell painting the Berkshire Museum sold last week, two of the most likely buyers are commenting.

One with a clear answer. The other, less so.

On May 22, in the final auction of an initial group of works offered by the Berkshire Museum, bidding for Rockwell's "Blacksmith's Boy — Heel and Toe" topped out at $7 million at Sotheby's in New York City, prompting the auctioneer to rap his wooden hammer.

With the buyer's premium added, the purchaser paid more than $8 million.

Crystal Bridges, the Arkansas museum founded by Walmart heiress Alice Walton, was considered a possible buyer.

But Beth Bobbitt, the museum's public relations director, says her institution did not purchase the work, also known as "Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop."

In early April, another possible buyer, the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, secured the Pittsfield museum's other high-profile Rockwell work in a private sale. The painting had received presale estimates of $20 million to $30 million by Sotheby's; the sale price has not been revealed, and the Berkshire Museum declined to comment on the transaction.

Paul Hernandez, spokesman for the Lucas museum, confirmed this week that "Shuffleton's" was purchased by the nonprofit institution itself, rather than individually by its co-founder, filmmaker George Lucas.

"`Shuffleton's Barbershop' was purchased by the Lucas Museum," Hernandez said in response to questions from The Eagle.

"As for `Blacksmith's Boy,' we have no comment," Hernandez said.

That answer leaves open the possibility that the California museum did acquire the piece but is not ready to make the news public.

If Lucas had bought "Shuffleton's" as a private owner with plans to later place it with his museum, art market experts say he could have avoided sales taxes by loaning the work out of state — as is the plan.

As a nonprofit buyer, the museum itself would not be subject to sales taxes.

"Shuffleton's" goes on view June 9 at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge as part of an exhibition called "Keepers of the Flame: Parrish, Wyeth, Rockwell and the Narrative Tradition." The local museum will have custody of the work into 2021.

Next steps

The Berkshire Museum board might decide whether to put another group of works up for auction when members meet June 7.

Under the agreement reached with Attorney General Maura Healey, to improve its financial condition the museum can sell up to $55 million worth of works from its collection.

On May 23, the board's chairwoman, Elizabeth McGraw, said that two weeks of sales produced "net proceeds of approximately $42 million, including the private sale of `Shuffleton's Barbershop.'"

After making that statement, Frederic Church's "Valley of Santa Isabel, New Granada," sold in a private transaction to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for an undisclosed sum.

The museum says the price received for the 1875 Church work was not included in the $42 million total.

The Church painting had been valued by Sotheby's at $5 million to $7 million. The high bid during the May 23 auction was $4.25 million, not enough to meet an apparent reserve placed on the work, but not disclosed in advance to bidders.

Whether the painting sold to the Philadelphia museum for the low-bid estimate of $5 million — a possible reserve price — has not been made public.

Under its agreement with Healey's office, the museum must disclose in advance its plan for continued sales.

But it has six to 12 months after all sales are complete to file a report with Healey's office, according to the terms of the agreement the two parties reached in February, after months of litigation.

Before the Church sale, the museum was $13 million short of its goal of $55 million.

Carol Bosco Baumann, the museum spokeswoman, said last week that even with the additional private sale of the Church painting, the museum remained short of its target.

"Information will be filed at a later date with the Office of the Attorney General," she said, "and we are committed to continue to share as much information as we can with the public."

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


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