A private philanthropist has saved the National Gallery of Canada from the potential embarrassment of dipping into public funds to pay the fee for calling off the sale of a Chagall painting, a decision the gallery made after weeks of public outcry and a fight with Quebec.
The National Gallery announced on Thursday it will not pay a penalty itself for withdrawing the 1929 work The Eiffel Tower from auction, the proceeds of which it had planned to use to buy a Jacques-Louis David painting from a Quebec church. The gallery said an unidentified donor had agreed to pay an undisclosed amount to Christie’s auction house to release the work.
A source who has been briefed on the matter said the benefactor was Michael Audain, a high-profile B.C. real estate developer and well-known patron of the arts.
“I’m glad it’s been resolved, but I can’t say anything about the matter,” Mr. Audain, 80, said in a brief interview on Thursday.
The National Gallery said it would not provide details of the agreement with Christie’s. A spokesperson said the work of art is currently in a “secure location” as the gallery works with Christie’s on how to return it to Ottawa.
The painting was taken out of the country earlier this year with an export permit and had been toured around Christie’s international showhouses, including those in London and Hong Kong.
The Chagall was to be auctioned in New York on May 15, and was expected to bring an estimated US$6-million to US$9-million. The gallery had planned to use proceeds of the sale to buy the 1779 Jacques-Louis David work Saint Jerome Hears The Trumpet of the Last Judgement from the parish corporation of Notre-Dame de Quebec in Quebec City, which was looking to sell it to pay for upkeep at two historic Quebec City churches.
Two museums in the province had wanted to buy the David, which has been owned by the parish corporation for nearly a century.
Quebeckers were angered when National Gallery director Marc Mayer seemed to make light of the museums’ concerns that the painting should stay in the province. “We’re a five-minute walk away from the fourth-largest city in Quebec,” he said last month. “It’s not as if it’s going to Saudi Arabia or Russia, it’s going to Ottawa, for heaven’s sake. I don’t really understand what the big deal is.”
In the end, the Quebec government intervened and placed a special designation on the David that made it difficult for the piece to cross provincial boundaries. With that obstacle, and amid mounting public outcry, the National Gallery said two weeks ago it would not go through with selling the Chagall.
The donation to pay the fee was facilitated by the National Gallery of Canada Foundation, the institution’s charitable arm.
“We at the foundation are thrilled that a generous Canadian patron has stepped up to enable the return of the Chagall to the gallery at no cost to the gallery,” said Thomas D’Aquino, chair of the foundation. “This is philanthropy at its best.”
Mr. Audain is a former chair of the board of the National Gallery (2009-13) and member of the foundation’s board (2009-14). He has long been involved with the Vancouver Art Gallery, and has built the Audain Art Museum in Whistler.
He and his wife, Yoshiko Karasawa, have a personal art collection that includes works by the likes of Emily Carr, Lawren Harris, Andy Warhol and Diego Rivera.
In 2015, the National Gallery of Canada Foundation announced the creation of the Audain Gallery in honour of more than $5-million in donations.
“As lovers of Canadian art, their unflinching support of the National Gallery speaks to their commitment to building and celebrating Canada’s visual arts patrimony,” Mr. D’Aquino said at the time. “Their philanthropy has been transformative for the gallery and for Canada.”
The foundation, which was created 20 years ago, has grown considerably in the past five years − from no staff members in 2013 to six paid a total of $850,000 last year − and has attracted more big-ticket donations.
NDP MP Pierre Nantel said the payment of the penalty does not mean that the file was well managed. He has tried and failed to convince the Liberal MPs on the Heritage Committee of the House to call Mr. Mayer and Françoise Lyon, the chair of the gallery’s board of trustees, to testify about the entire process.
Mr. Nantel said the situation is still “a giant mess” even though someone else has paid the penalty. “It would have been nice if this benefactor had given this money to the gallery instead,” he said.
Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly refused to comment on the matter, saying the National Gallery conducts its operations without political influence.