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Politics How the National Gallery fumbled its high-profile effort to ‘save’ a historic painting in Quebec

It started as a routine meeting. On Monday, Dec. 4, board members, employees and advisers of the National Gallery of Canada met in their boardroom to decide what art to buy, what to loan and what they might be gifted from their generous donors.

But buried on the agenda was an unusual item. And that night in that boardroom, where Christopher Pratt’s Deer Lake hangs on a wall, the National Gallery’s leading minds made a decision that would come back to haunt them.

They decided to buy an historic French painting, Jacques-Louis David’s 1779 Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment.

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The price: Unloading a Chagall.

Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment by Jacques-Louis David.

HO/The Canadian Press

The Saint Jerome had hung in the National Gallery from 1995 to 2013, and curators wanted it back. The gallery had offered $3-million to the parish of Notre Dame de Quebec, which owns the art, but the offer was refused. No more could be spared from the gallery’s annual $8-million acquisition budget and potential private donors balked at the price.

The gallery and the parish had negotiated for a year and a half. The gallery needed more money, and quickly. Britain’s National Gallery was prepared to snatch up the David. Canada’s National Gallery was determined not to let it out of the country.

Chief curator Paul Lang, a major fan of the piece who saw it as a central plank in the European art section, got unanimous approval from the board that day to make a new offer: US$5-million.

But there was a catch. And it has since created a crisis of confidence at one of Canada’s pre-eminent cultural institutions. To buy the David, the gallery had to sell a major work of art: The Eiffel Tower by Marc Chagall, which it bought more than 50 years before.

According to sources who were inside the meeting room or were briefed on the proceedings, as well as documents, the board and other art lovers debated the wisdom of selling one piece to buy another, and the potential public criticism of the decision to auction off the more recent, colourful Chagall to acquire the older, darker David. At no point, however, did it dawn on them that the Quebec government and two major institutions in the province would raise a ruckus and block the plan − or that they should consult the public on the largest sale in the gallery’s history. And that tension would become the biggest cultural and political flashpoint for the National Gallery in decades.

With the decision made to sell The Eiffel Tower, the National Gallery approached Christie’s auction house to arrange a sale on the global market. International interest was high. Another Chagall, the 1928 canvas Les Amoureux, had sold for US$28-million the month before, nearly double the estimated price.

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The Eiffel Tower by Marc Chagall.

The Canadian Press

Christie’s and the National Gallery decided The Eiffel Tower should go on sale in the spring, traditionally one of the busiest for the international art world, to net the biggest proceeds. The Eiffel Tower would go up for auction on May 15, as part of Christie’s evening of impressionist and modern art.

With that promise, the National Gallery returned to the parish with its new offer: US$5-million, conditional on the sale of the Chagall.

But the National Gallery was not Saint Jerome’s only suitor.

The Musée de la civilisation in Quebec City was the painting’s legal depository. It had looked after the David for years after the canvas was donated to Notre-Dame in 1922. The Musée had right of first refusal to buy the painting outright and had, along with the National Gallery and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, been approached by the parish to buy it in the summer of 2016.

But neither the Musée or the MMFA, where the painting has hung since 2016, had the funds. Their budgets and networks of donors were far smaller than those of the National Gallery.

The civil corporation of the parish of Notre-Dame de Quebec gave the Musée six months to match the US$5-million offer. The Musée and the MMFA decided to team up on a joint bid. Now they had a timeline.

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The National Gallery, meanwhile, had its Chagall to sell. Under its board-approved rules, the gallery had to offer The Eiffel Tower to Canadian institutions at its fair market value before putting it on public sale.

On Dec. 13, the gallery wrote to 150 galleries and museums and gave them until Jan. 9 to reply. None did.

“It’s a very, very short [window] − and Christmas in between,” said Nathalie Bondil, director-general of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. “Who can buy a Chagall for six or eight million in just three weeks?”

The National Gallery received its export permit from the Canada Border Services Agency shortly after and The Eiffel Tower was taken out of the country. It began a tour of Christie’s showhouses around the world, from London to Hong Kong, to drum up interest among the auctioneer’s wealthy patrons.

’We don’t consult the public’

Until now, the largest potential sale in the National Gallery’s history had escaped public notice. The deaccessioning − the term for when a museum takes a piece out of its collection − was debated within the gallery, but no public input was sought or received. The only word that had gone out was to the leaders of other museums.

“We don’t consult the public for acquisitions or deaccessioning,” Marc Mayer, the director of the gallery, said last week.

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That changed at the end of March. Christie’s notified its clients what was in its spring sale and Canada’s art community took notice. The drumbeat sounded loudest in Quebec when it became public that the gallery was selling the Chagall to buy the David. The National Gallery justified the sale by saying it was the last resort to stop a work of “national heritage” from being take out of the country, but the Musée and the MMFA said they were still putting a bid together to buy the piece and keep it in the province. The two museums said they could work with the gallery, but Mr. Mayer shot it down.

The painting has been designated as being symbolic and a part of Quebec’s heritage.

— Quebec Culture Minister Marie Montpetit

As the debate wore on, the National Gallery received an earful from the public − and its donors.

On April 23, the chair of the National Gallery’s board of trustees, Françoise Lyon and Mr. Mayer released a public letter saying the Chagall sale was going ahead no matter what. Even if they lost out on the David, they said, the proceeds would create a “financial safety net” to keep major works of art in the country.

Privately, the gallery gave its wealthy donors more information. In a letter dated the same day, Thomas d’Aquino and Karen Colby-Stothart − the chair and chief executive of the National Gallery of Canada Foundation, a charity that works very closely with the public institution − said they were working on creating what they called the “Masterpiece Fund.”

“[The fund is] a ‘war chest’ to better position the Gallery to move swiftly in the face of outstanding opportunities to acquire new artworks,” said the letter, addressed to the foundation’s “distinguished patrons” −those who had donated at least $100,000.

But the same day, the National Gallery’s plans were dealt what would prove to be the fatal blow.

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Fewer than two weeks after learning the work was on the verge of being sold, Quebec Culture Minister Marie Montpetit gave notice that she intended to give it a special classification to prevent it from being taken out of the province without her permission.

The designation also gave the provincial government a special right to buy it before anyone else. In an interview, she said her goal was for all parties to resume discussions without the threat of the David’s removal from Quebec. She said her department will not buy the piece, adding she is not even convinced it should change hands.

“I have invited the parish to think things over and to engage in further discussions with the institutions in question over the fate of the painting,” Ms. Montpetit said. “Now that the painting has been designated as being symbolic and a part of Quebec’s heritage, I think the parish has a duty to make sure it remains accessible for all Quebeckers in a museum setting.”

A silver lining

While the provincial Liberals got involved, the Liberals in Ottawa stayed out of it.

Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly said cultural institutions should be free from government interference and she would not get involved.

Victor Rabinovitch, who was director of the Museum of History and the War Museum from 2000 to 2011, agreed with the sentiment, but said it is entirely appropriate for politicians to get involved in cases of national interest.

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“It’s not good enough for any minister to say: ‘No, no, no, I’m not involved with that at all,’” Mr. Rabinovitch said. “The voice of a minister, even the voice of a prime minister, is very important. And that’s exactly what we saw in Quebec.”

In the face of the new obstacles and with public support collapsing, the National Gallery’s board of trustees held an emergency meeting on Wednesday night. In a heated discussion, the board decided to pull out of the sale and abandon its plans to buy the David.

The gallery notified Christie’s on Thursday it was backing out. It may face a cancellation fee of up to $1-million unless the auction house waives it.

Mr. Mayer, who had pushed so hard for the historic deal, was not in town when the decision was made. He had left for a work trip to Europe. His term at the helm of the gallery ends in January.

In an interview this week from Strasbourg, where he recently took a new job, Mr. Lang said the saga might have a silver lining: a renewed interest in Canada for the Saint Jerome, and newfound recognition of the artist best known for his paintings of Napoléon.

“Because of the polemic that has been created, everyone will now know who is David,” Mr. Lang said.

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