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opinion

There is a scene in Denys Arcand’s 2003 film, The Barbarian Invasions, in which a weary old priest asks a young art dealer what the religious artifacts stored in his church basement might fetch at an international auction. He gleans her answer by the forlorn look on her face. Rien. Nada. Not a penny.

She was obviously looking in the wrong basement. The spat that has pitted the National Gallery of Canada against two Quebec museums seeking to buy a 1779 neoclassical painting by Jacques-Louis David has cast light on the valuable stash of art owned by many churches in the province. The David tableau stands out for its significance, price tag and history. But the fight over who should get to own it is sure to spark renewed interest in the underappreciated art at some of the most magnificent houses of worship that most Quebeckers have never stepped foot in.

And just who should get to own the David estimated to be worth millions?

According to National Gallery director Marc Mayer, that would be him, er, rather, the museum he runs. The problem is that Mr. Mayer has gone about trying to acquire the work, owned since 1922 by the Fabrique de la paroisse Notre-Dame de Québec, with all the elegance of an ill-humoured Jackson Pollock splattering paint all over the room.

The Quebec City cathedral, unable to provide for the painting’s security, long ago granted custodianship of the oeuvre by the renowned French artist to Quebec’s Musée de la civilisation. The latter has a right of first refusal in the event of the painting’s sale. This week, it proposed teaming up with the National Gallery and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts to jointly purchase the work titled Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment.

“You don’t pass around an old painting like the child of a divorced couple,” Mr. Mayer snapped in several interviews in which he dismissed the idea of a joint purchase. The head of the Musée de la civilisation, Stéphan La Roche, called Mr. Mayer’s attitude “contemptuous. As if we were rural museums in a vast countryside.”

Going around dissing fellow museum directors did not help Mr. Mayer’s cause. After all, he was already in many art-world bad books for putting a 1929 painting by French artist Marc Chagall up for auction in New York in order to purchase the David. The Chagall auction was sprung on the public by Christie’s without the gallery preparing Canadians first.

“We had about eight PhDs in art history who agreed that we were proceeding properly,” Mr. Mayer told the CBC just before the whole affair exploded in his face. “We’ve exhausted all of the other options to acquire this other work. But unfortunately, this is all we have left.”

Mr. Mayer’s second mistake was trying to keep the whole operation secret. The National Gallery refused to reveal the painting it was seeking to buy with the estimated $8-million or more it expected in proceeds from the Chagall sale. All it would say was the painting in question risked leaving Canada without its intervention to acquire it, an excuse that always sounded suspect. It became irrelevant this week, when the Quebec government took steps toward classifying the David painting a heritage work, preventing it from leaving the province, other than perhaps on loan.

Were you to ask any public-relations specialist to evaluate the National Gallery’s handling of this whole affair, they would offer a look out of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. And yet, the National Gallery may very well be the proper home for the David. Collecting such neoclassical works is not typically within the mandate of the Musée de la civilisation. And while the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, where the painting currently hangs, could also make a fine permanent home for it, the David would arguably find better company at the National Gallery.

Mr. Mayer has noted the work would complement its collection of tableaux by the so-called Caravaggisti, artists inspired by the 16th-century Italian painter Caravaggio. Indeed, for this reason, the David painting spent 18 years on loan to the gallery, only returning to Quebec in 2013.

“The influence of Caravaggio’s art is unmistakable in this work, which would cap off nearly two centuries of such examples in Canada’s national collection, increasing its educational value,” Mr. Mayer wrote on the gallery’s website on Monday. He added the painting requires “significant restoration” to “bring this national treasure back to its former glory.”

Mr. Mayer may need a bit of restoration himself when this train wreck is over.