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Inside the dispute over the Beaverbrook artworks

The Property of the Beaverbrook Foundation. Claude-Joseph Vernet Avignon 174 - 1789 Paris. A Grand View of the Sea Shore Enriched With Buildings. Shipping and Figures oil on canvas.

Beaverbrook Foundation/Beaverbrook Foundation

Last September, an out-of-court settlement determined the ownership of 133 paintings and drawings housed in Fredericton's Beaverbrook Art Gallery. Still in question though is the ownership of 78 works in the vaults and on the gallery walls.

The Beaverbrook Canadian Foundation is claiming ownership. The group is headed by New York-based Timothy Aitken, one of the first Lord Beaverbrook's grandsons and the cousin of London-based Maxwell Aitken III, who is head of the Beaverbrook U.K. Foundation. It was Maxwell's foundation that signed the out-of-court accord giving the Fredericton gallery title to 85 of the 133 works the foundation claimed it owned. The remaining 48 were deemed the foundation's property.

The works claimed by the Canadian foundation – including a large, classic Cornelius Krieghoff winter scene from 1860 called Merrymaking and J.W. Morrice's Concarneau Cirque from 1910 – are considered less valuable than the other 85 that the gallery obtained title to last year. Two of those alone – J.M.W. Turner's The Fountain of Indolence and Lucian Freud's Hotel Bedroom – were deemed by the gallery in 2004 to be worth between $22-million and $34-million in total.

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Since last year's settlement, the U.K. foundation has been selling its most valuable Beaverbrook gallery holdings at auction. The hope is to help cover litigation costs and continue its support of other charities.

In January, Sotheby's New York, for example, realized more than $7-million, including buyer's premium, by hammering down the jewel of the U.K. foundation's collection, Claude-Joseph Vernet's A Grand View of the Sea Shore in the Mediterranean (1776).

Last fall, the foundation also put Cherkley Court, the Surrey estate the first Lord Beaverbrook purchased for £25,000 in 1911, on the real-estate market, with an asking price of more than £20-million ($32-million). Before last year's settlement the foundation had poured tens of millions of pounds into renovating the property, partly in the hope of drawing at least 50,000 visitors a year. But a Surrey newspaper reports the estate had only 13,000 visitors in 2008, 16,000 in 2009.

Meanwhile, the Beaverbrook Canadian Foundation is still on record as wishing to realize its claim through the New Brunswick courts. However, it's known that the foundation and the Beaverbrook Art Gallery have been participating in closed-door "settlement conferences" supervised by David Smith, Chief Justice of the Court of Queen's Bench of New Brunswick, most recently last week. More meetings are expected, but none has been scheduled.

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