It was an enormous coup for a small art gallery, scoring 2,070 photos by famed American portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz.
But the donation of the multimillion-dollar collection to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia by a Toronto family has been mired in controversy – with allegations that the gift was a potential tax shelter – leaving the images of celebrity and pop culture icons in storage for four years.
On Wednesday, the Halifax gallery's fourth and final application to have a federal board certify the photographs as "cultural property" of outstanding significance was rejected, casting a shadow over the prospects of the gallery holding an exhibit of the photographer's work.
A gallery spokesman said the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board has once again concluded that the bulk of the photographs do not meet the criteria for outstanding significance or national importance.
Colin Stinson said the gallery is "extremely disappointed" and disagrees with the federal board's decision, noting that Ms. Leibovitz is one of "the most influential photographers of her time."
"We know people are eager and excited to see this very special collection," Mr. Stinson said in a statement. "Our priority is still to share the work of this iconic and celebrated artist in our gallery and across the country."
While the board certified Ms. Leibovitz's file collection – a series of snapshots that led to final photographs – it refused to certify the large-scale exhibition-style prints.
The collection includes a portrait of a naked and pregnant Demi Moore, a brooding image of the Queen, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi as the Blues Brothers, and the haunting photo of a naked John Lennon and Yoko Ono cuddling on a floor hours before the musician was gunned down in front of his New York apartment.
Mr. Stinson said the gallery's priority is to display the photography, but without the federal certification that decision belongs to Ms. Leibovitz.
"We will talk to the artist to determine the best path forward," he said.
The certification is crucial for lucrative tax incentives that encourage private collectors to donate artwork to public institutions that couldn't otherwise afford the art.
Toronto art lawyer Aaron Milrad has said the works were purchased for roughly $4.75-million (U.S.), but have a fair market value closer to $20-million.
He said the federal board got "all hot and heavy about the money part" and failed to recognize the spectacular magnitude of the collection.
The family of Al and Faye Mintz of Toronto donated the images to the gallery in June, 2013, in what was the largest single donation of one artist to the gallery.