Mystery buyer of Rockwell painting comes forward, and he’s really famous

'Star Wars' creator's museum agrees to buy painting from Berkshire Museum
The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield.
The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield.

LOS ANGELES — The mystery buyer that arranged to purchase Norman Rockwell’s celebrated painting “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” from the financially troubled and legally scrutinized Berkshire Museum in western Massachusetts has just stepped forward: The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, which broke ground last month and is expected to open here in about four years, has bought the work for an undisclosed sum.

“We are very excited to have it join our collection,” said Don Bacigalupi, director of the Lucas Museum. “This will be one of the anchor works of our museum, which we’re delighted to share with the public.” The museum’s founder, George Lucas, of “Star Wars” fame, is already known as the leading private collector of Rockwell’s work. He owns dozens of Rockwell paintings, most of which are promised gifts to his museum.

Painted in 1950 as a cover for The Saturday Evening Post, “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” is one of Rockwell’s most popular works. Bacigalupi sees it as one of his most complex compositions as well: a glimpse into small-town life after business hours, which doubles as a reflection on the history of painting, rife with “references to modernism” like the prominent windowpane structure that echoes a Mondrian grid.

The painting was originally donated to the Berkshire Museum by Rockwell, making a controversy that erupted last year over its de-accessioning even fiercer than the usual public backlash. The Berkshire Museum had planned to sell the painting in a major November sale at Sotheby’s, where it was estimated to bring $20 million to $30 million. But two lawsuits, including one from a group including Rockwell’s three children, were filed to prevent this auction as well as the de-accessioning of several other museum works, and the Massachusetts attorney general obtained an injunction to stop any museum sales while examining their necessity and legality.

In February, the attorney general found that the museum’s planned sales were necessary for its financial health. Most recently, Justice David A. Lowy of the state’s Supreme Judicial Court ruled that it is legal for the museum to sell up to 39 works at auction and to finalize the private sale of this Rockwell through Sotheby’s to a then-undisclosed museum.

Bacigalupi declined to comment on the legal proceedings but confirmed that the Lucas Museum has agreed “as a condition of the sale” to loan the painting to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Massachusetts for the next 18 to 24 months, keeping it in the Berkshires for the time being. The painting could be lent to another institution after that period, before going on display at the Lucas Museum in Los Angeles when it opens.

“One of the speculations and fears with a situation like this is that the painting could go into private hands and never be seen again,” Bacigalupi said. “Our commitment is really making this painting available to the public in perpetuity.”

Categories: Art, Entertainment

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