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Politics National Gallery plans largest art sale ever with a Chagall painting worth at least $8-million

The National Gallery of Canada says it is making its largest art sale ever to raise money to buy a “significant work” before it can be taken out of Canada.

The gallery is selling the 1929 oil painting La Tour Eiffel by European modernist master Marc Chagall, a piece bought from a New York gallery in 1956.

Marc Chagall's La Tour Eiffel, 1929, currently on display at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. Christie's has estimated the work could sell for between $8-million and $13-million at auction.

National Gallery of Canada

Christie’s auction house, which is handling the sale for the National Gallery, estimates La Tour Eiffel will go for US$6-million to US$9-million (about $8-million to $13-million Canadian) on May 15, although it could sell for much more. In November, Sotheby’s estimated Chagall’s 1928 painting Les Amoureux would net US$12-million to US$18-million – and it sold for more than US$28-million.

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“This painting [La Tour Eiffel] is being offered for sale at an ideal time in the market, when singular examples by Chagall are more in demand than ever,” Christie’s deputy chair Cyanne Chutkow noted in a news release.

Opinion: What the National Gallery of Canada’s sealed lips and deep pockets could mean

Marc Mayer, director of the National Gallery, says the money from the sale will be used to buy a “major work of art” of equivalent value that is part of Canada’s heritage, but is about to be transferred out of the country. He did not name the piece.

He said the gallery tried persuading private citizens to help, but, in the end, felt it had no option but to sell the Chagall piece on the global market while the appetite for his works is hot.

“This is what we have to do to make sure that [the unidentified piece] doesn’t leave Canada, because we feel very strongly that it shouldn’t and we felt that we could sacrifice the Chagall that we have, because we have other works by Chagall that we think are more important,” Mr. Mayer said.

La Tour Eiffel, which depicts the Eiffel Tower rising in front of a blazing red sky, is one of the gallery’s two paintings by Chagall, along with a half-dozen drawings and hundreds of prints.

But the work, although known internationally, hasn’t been on display in many years because the gallery did not have an appropriate spot for it.

“[La Tour Eiffel] has spent about as much time in storage as it has on the walls,” Mr. Mayer said.

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He said the piece the gallery wants to buy is “more significant” to Canadians, but would not say if it was the product of a Canadian artist.

“I can’t tell you anything about it. There aren’t a lot of works of this value kicking around, so any little hint will identify it pretty much immediately,” Mr. Mayer said.

The sale of La Tour Eiffel should easily surpass the National Gallery’s $8-million annual budget for acquiring new work.

This is what we have to do to make sure that [the unidentified piece] doesn’t leave Canada, because we feel very strongly that it shouldn’t and we felt that we could sacrifice the Chagall that we have, because we have other works by Chagall that we think are more important.

— Marc Mayer, director of the National Gallery of Canada

If the price reaches the high end of the estimate or more, it would exceed the highest amounts paid at auction for Canadian pieces. Mountain Forms, a renowned 1926 piece by Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris, sold for $11.2-million in Toronto in 2016. Vent du nord, a 1953 work by Quebec artist Jean-Paul Riopelle, sold at Canadian auction house Heffel for $7.4-million last year. Both prices include buyer’s premiums.

The gallery had offered the Chagall piece to Canadian museums, but none were interested. It is in talks with Canadian institutions to sell three ancient works from Egypt and Assyria that have not been on display in decades and it plans to give four works by British artists and an embroidered carpet by Queen Mary to other Canadian museums and galleries.

The National Gallery’s policy for disposing of works, approved by the board of trustees last March, says it is free to sell off art “as part of the Gallery’s effort to refine and improve its collections.”

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Greg Humeniuk, an art historian who has worked for the Art Gallery of Ontario, said the sale, called a deaccessioning, makes sense if it is part of the gallery’s curatorial strategy − but could be worrying otherwise.

“If the primary decisions for deaccessioning the work was, this work no longer fits our mandate, or if it’s superfluous, or it’s purely about the context of the work in the collection, that’s fine. It would be more troubling if the deaccessioning was to raise funds pure and simple,” he said, pointing to budget problems at other North American museums.

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Other objects to be sold or donated by the National Gallery of Canada

Mummy Portrait of a Woman ca. 1–200, Beeswax on wood; 38.1 × 21.6 cm. From Egypt in the Roman period.

Fragment of a Relief with a Human-headed Winged Genius before the Sacred Tree, 883–859 BCE. Gypsum alabaster, 75.6 × 70.5 cm. From Assyria.

Fragment of a Relief with Two Soldiers, 883–859 BCE. Gypsum alabaster; 41.9 × 53.3 cm. From Assyria.

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John Watson Gordon, George Ramsay, 9th Earl of Dalhousie, 1829. Oil on canvas, 245.7 × 156 cm.

James Green, John Arthur Roebuck, 1833. Oil on canvas, 77.0 × 63.5 cm.

George Koberwein after a work by Frederick Richard Say, Charles Theophilus, Lord Metcalfe, original 1843, copy ca. 1859–1876. Oil on canvas, 206.0 × 139.0 cm.

Edward Francis Toone Theed after a work by Alexander Munro, 5th Duke of Newcastle, original 1864, copy 1887. Marble; 84.0 cm high.

HM Queen Mary, Queen Mary’s Carpet, 1941–1950. Gros point embroidery in wool on cotton canvas, 310.0 × 207.0 cm.

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