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A detail of a Thomas Gainsborough portrait of Lt.-Col. Edmund Nugent in the Beaverbrook Art Gallery's collection.

One of the longest, most bitter and expensive legal disputes in Canadian cultural history has come to an end with an out-of-court settlement that confirms the Beaverbrook Art Gallery's ownership of 85 artworks valued by some at more than $100-million.

The resolution, more than six years in the making and the result of negotiations that started in July, was announced Wednesday afternoon in a media release from the Fredericton-based gallery.

The dispute revolved around whether the gallery, built by the first, Canadian-born Lord Beaverbrook in 1959 as a gift to the province in which he was raised, had title to 133 artworks given decades earlier by the aristocrat. Or were the works loans, "recallable on demand" by the Beaverbrook U.K. Foundation, a philanthropy headed by Lord Beaverbrook's London-based grandson, Maxwell Aitken III? (Still to be determined, even with Wednesday's agreement, is the ownership of 78 other artworks held by the gallery but claimed by the Beaverbrook Canadian Foundation, chaired by another Beaverbrook grandson, Timothy Aitken.)

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Full details of the deal were not revealed because of confidentiality clauses. Nevertheless, it appears the Beaverbrook got clear title to 85 of the 133 works (the remaining 48, it was agreed, belong to the foundation and will be shipped overseas) in exchange for giving the foundation a break on the millions of dollars in costs and damages earlier arbitration hearings said it should pay the Beaverbrook.

Last fall, it looked as if the legal wrangling would continue when the foundation announced it wished to appeal the arbitration awards in N.B.'s Court of Queen's Bench.

Gallery director and CEO Bernard Riordon said in a brief interview he felt the overall arrangement was "generally … satisfactory to the gallery." In a statement, the foundation acknowledged the agreement included an "allocation of costs," then went on to wish the Beaverbrook "success in the future" while expressing "the hope that [the gallery's]paintings" would be made available to as wide a public as possible" in New Brunswick, the rest of Canada and cities such as London and New York.

This is Mr. Riordon's intention. Earlier this year, he indicated that should the gallery prevail, he would assemble an extensive tour of some of the Beaverbrook's masterpieces, including The Fountain of Indolence, an 1834 canvas by British master J.M.W. Turner, and Lucian Freud's, Hotel Bedroom, from 1954. Some experts estimate these paintings together could fetch more than $40-million at auction. By contrast, a 2003 appraisal of the 48 works now owned by the foundation put their total value at $2.3-$3.3-million.

Clearly the Beaverbrook needs revenue. Court documents indicate its legal bills are more than $10-million. The U.K. foundation has spent at least that much, and recently the U.K. Charity Commission, which oversees British philanthropies, expressed concern about the foundation's weak revenue picture and its use of loans to carry on its legal fight.

Fortunately for the gallery, New Brunswick's provincial gallery since 1994, the government has provided $7.6-million in interest-free loans over the course of the dispute. The foundation, by contrast, announced last spring that it would help meet its debts and obligations by selling, if possible, Cherkley Court, the Surrey country estate, now valued at $30-million, that the first Lord Beaverbrook bought in 1911 shortly after emigrating from Canada.

Wednesday's deal essentially validates an arbitration decision reached in March, 2007, by former Supreme Court justice Peter Cory - and upheld two years later by an appeal panel - that granted ownership of 85 works to the Fredericton gallery and 48 to the U.K. foundation.

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Mr. Cory ruled that the first Lord Beaverbrook, born Maxwell Aitken in 1879 in Maple, Ont., had made a "perfected" gift of these 85 works to his namesake gallery before his death in 1964. At the same time, he acknowledged that the remaining paintings in dispute were the foundation's as they'd gone to Fredericton after Lord Beaverbrook quietly amended his trust deed with the gallery in 1960.

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