NGC reneges on plan to sell Chagall

Posted on: April 27, 2018 by

Marc Chagall, La Tour Eiffel (1929), the work which the National Gallery of Canada is planning to sell in May

The National Gallery of Canada, as reported earlier, had plans to sell one of its two major works by Marc Chagall, La Tour Eiffel, at auction at Christies in New York on 15 May, with an estimate of $6 million to $ 9 million. This led to much uproar in the Canadian press and amongst the general population – or at least the part of the population that cares something for art and cultural policy. Most commentators on the topic came out against the sale (for example, see Alan Freedman on ipolitics and Konrad Yakabuski in The Globe and Mail), with one notable exception in the Toronto Star. A couple of online petitions opposing the sale made the rounds and were nearing the 1,000 signature mark. Just yesterday, the National Gallery’s board voted to pull the sale from Christies. The end of a three-week saga that must have felt even longer for management at the Gallery

In fact the whole context of the attempted sale had changed dramatically in the last week. As I mentioned earlier, Canada’s National Gallery is not prevented by legislation from selling off works from its collection (surprising for a national collection), provided the money goes back into furthering the collection. The aim of the sale at Christies was to free up funds for the acquisition of a great early work by Jacques-Louis David, which is currently owned by a church in the province of Quebec. The worry was that the David would be sold abroad unless a Canadian institution stepped forward to buy it.

Jacques-Louis David, Saint Jerome hears the trumpet of the last judgment (1779), a work the National Gallery was hoping to buy from a Quebec church.

No longer is that threat real though. Two major Quebec museums, the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal and the Musée de la civilisation in Quebec City, have shown serious interest in acquiring the work (jointly perhaps?) and the Quebec Minister of Culture has stepped into the fray with an intention to declare the work part of Quebec’s cultural heritage (a ‘classification’ under the Quebec Cultural Heritage Act of 2011), which would mean it could not be bought or sold, nor indeed leave the province, without the Minister’s approval.

Should the Minister’s classification come through, which appears likely, the David would forever remain in Quebec. Which begged the question, why would the National Gallery proceed with the sale of the Chagall? Undaunted, the Director of the National Gallery initially pushed through, claiming that the funds realised from the auction sale would help to ensure in future that no major piece of important art leaves the country. Which is all well and good, except for the fact that a work by one of the 20th century’s great artists was being sacrificed and sent abroad for this very cause. The logic behind the sale was starting to wear thin.

Then the Chagall heirs themselves, who sit on the Comité Marc Chagall in Paris, wrote an angry letter decrying the sale of La Tour Eiffel. “We deeply regret your decision,” wrote the representative of the Comité. “We hope that you will consider other solutions for your museum before implementing this pressing decision, which cannot be undone and is fraught with consequences.” So it seemed that the National Gallery would have been going against expressed public opinion, the views of commentators, as well as the feelings of the artist’s representatives in selling this work. So all factors combined must have convinced the board to decide yesterday not to go ahead with the sale.

There had been another twist in the matter (now moot, but worthy of some examination nonetheless) involving the export permit that would necessarily have been obtained by the National Gallery in order to send the Chagall to Christies. Of course sending a valuable work like this out of the country required an export permit under the Canadian Cultural Property Export and Import Act. Under the Act, a permit officer will issue an export permit provided an expert examiner (a specialist in the relevant area of art, usually a senior curator from a museum) has confirmed that the work is either not of outstanding significance or not of national importance. These requirements are a little different from say the Waverley criteria in the UK, which do not require a demonstration of national importance in all cases (a work of purely great aesthetic importance, like the Chagall for example, could get caught under the UK system).

In this case, the expert examiner had apparently concluded that the work was either not outstanding or not of national importance (probably the latter), and so the permit had been issued. Either way, we don’t know what the basis was because the process occurred under a shroud of secrecy. The francophone press in Quebec (the intrepid Michel Bellemare at the Journal de Montréal) had picked up on the fact that the expert examiner, who must by law submit his/her decision to the Minister and the Export Review Board, failed to inform the latter (the requirement is at section 11(2) of the Act). So the process didn’t seem to have been appropriately followed prior to the issuing of the permit. Did that invalidate the permit? Well, that might have been the $6 million to $9 million question in some people’s minds, but after yesterday’s developments that question effectively became dead letter.