Skip to main content

The Museum of Vancouver, which has already sold to the Rijksmuseum nine terracotta pieces believed to be sculpted by a close follower of Michelangelo, hopes it can sell the remaining nine pieces it still holds to the Dutch museum to keep the collection intact.

Nine small, exquisite Renaissance-era sculptures, most at one time deemed to be by Michelangelo and valued as such at about $17-million, have been sold by the Museum of Vancouver to Amsterdam's famous Rijksmuseum for less than $200,000 (U.S.).

The sale actually was completed in the spring of 2013, but neither the Vancouver institution nor the Rijksmuseum, home to Rembrandt's The Night Watch and Vermeer's The Milkmaid, formally announced the transaction at the time. MoV chief executive officer Nancy Noble confirmed the sale last week to The Globe and Mail.

A second set of nine sculptures – now, like the first set, believed to have been created by Dutch sculptor Johan Gregor van der Schardt (c. 1530-1581) – has been deaccessioned by the Vancouver museum and could be offered for sale later this year, Noble said. On the list of potential buyers: the Rijksmuseum.

If this sale is held and is successful, it will mark the end of a rather tortuous, even mysterious, saga in which the MoV has been enmeshed since the mid-1990s. Sotheby's New York attempted to auction the first nine terracottas – models of sundry body parts – earlier in 2013, valuing them by estimates at $200,000 to $300,000. However, no bids were offered, prompting the MoV, with Sotheby's help, to negotiate a private sale with the Rijksmuseum, which holds a striking self-portrait bust of van der Schardt in its permanent collection.

Noble did not reveal the 2013 sale price, but she acknowledged that it was "considerably less than the reserve of $200,000," the reserve being the minimum that auctioneer and consignor agree will be accepted as the successful purchase bid.

The 18 terracottas were donated to the MoV by two consortiums of still-unidentified Canadian investors, the first set of nine arriving in 1998, the second in late 2005. Ownership of the 18 can be traced back almost five centuries to Paul von Praun, a wealthy German silk merchant, art collector, Michelangelo contemporary and van der Schardt aficionado. (Van der Schardt lived in Italy during the 1560s and, while a close follower of Michelangelo (1475-1564), was an accomplished, well-regarded artist in his own right.)

After von Praun's death in 1616, his large collection of drawings, paintings and sculptures passed from one owner to the next until February, 1938, when Christie's auctioneers in London broke up most of the collection for sale.

Eighteen terraccotta models were purchased at that time by Montreal mining promoter Percival Wolfe. Some came from the Christie's auction, while the remainder were purchased from a Dr. A.B. Heyer, who, according to a CBC report, was living in London after "fleeing Nazi persecution in Europe." Wolfe subsequently bequeathed all 18 in the 1950s to his twin sons, Peter and Paul LeBrooy, both of whom later resided in Vancouver.

Making copies or studies of works by master sculptors was a common practice during the Renaissance. And more often than not, it was done out of admiration or for pedagogical reasons rather than from any intent to forge or deceive. With respect to the Wolfe/LeBrooy terracottas, many of the 18 were seen to resemble the anatomical elements in some of Michelangelo's most famous sculptures, to such an extent, in fact, that over time some came to believe they were preparatory studies from Michelangelo's own hands.

According to The Vancouver Sun, the LeBrooy brothers, especially Paul, (both are now deceased, Paul in 1999, Peter in 2003), worked hard to attribute some if not all of their terracottas to Michelangelo. In 1972, Paul wrote a book called Michelangelo Models "to coincide with their cross-Canada tour sponsored by Rothman's tobacco," including an appearance at what is now the Museum of Vancouver. The twins had a falling-out in the mid-1990s, resulting in the terracottas being evenly split between them.

In 1996, a Vancouver private investment bank, Corporate House, put together a consortium of 66 investors to acquire Paul's half, purchase price unspecified. The plan was for the investors to donate the works to the MoV, a public, not-for-profit institution whose origins date to the late-19th century, in exchange for a tax break based on their fair market value.

As part of the deal, the museum applied to the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board to certify the nine terracottas as "nationally important." Certification was subsequently granted, with the fair market value of the nine models determined to be more than $17-million (Canadian). In 2013, The Vancouver Sun reported that the donors would have received about $7.4-million in tax credits on that appraisal.

Nine years later, the scheme was repeated, this time with Peter LeBrooy's widow, Enid, selling his nine terracottas to a Corporate House-arranged consortium of investors, the amount again unspecified. Again, the works were donated to the MoV, their appraised value of about $13-million giving the donors roughly $6-million in tax credits to split among themselves.

For some, these donations, never widely publicized nor exhibited, seemed odd. After all, the MoV's mission is to tell and celebrate "the Vancouver story." But this is only a relatively recent thrust, the result of a "revisioning" initiated in 2008. In previous decades, the MoV was known for the eclecticism of its contents: In 1922, for example, it was given the mummified remains of a child excavated from a grave in Luxor, Egypt.

However, once the MoV more firmly embraced its mandate to "collect, preserve, research and interpret" Vancouver's human and natural history, its board decided that it only made sense to deaccession its Renaissance-era terracottas.

However, Canadian tax regulations say objects evaluated as "certified Canadian cultural property" – which the 18 terracottas had been – can't be deaccessioned for cash without penalty until they have been in an institution for a minimum of 10 years. While the nine once owned by Paul LeBrooy met that criterion, the nine of brother Peter would have to wait until late 2015.

Noble noted that the MoV "put out feelers before we ever went to auction," first approaching various Canadian museums, then going international. Nobody was interested. By this time, serious doubts by scholars had been raised as to the Michelangelo attribution touted by the LeBrooys. The MoV itself would only certify them as Renaissance-era sculptures.

By the time it approached Sotheby's to sell the first nine of the 18, it knew they wouldn't fetch anywhere near $30-million. Indeed, Sotheby's estimate on the high end was only $300,000. Moreover, its catalogue copy declared that any attempt to credit them to Michelangelo was "unsustainable" and "disproven."

"Recent scholarship on van der Schardt … has clarified their place in the history of sculpture," namely as a loving homage by a talented "student" to his master, the catalogue said.

Noble said that for the time being, the MoV doesn't "actually have a plan" to complete the deaccession of the last nine van der Schardts, "because, to be honest with you, you kind of forget about these things and move onto others."

One thing that is for certain: The museum won't try to auction them. "We learned in 2013 that there's not a big market for these; they're very specialized," Noble said.

Besides, the 18 belong together, preferably in the Rijksmuseum, which is why, she said, "We probably will talk to them [later]."

Interact with The Globe