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

handout/The Canadian Press

The National Gallery of Canada explored all options before deciding to auction off a work by Marc Chagall to acquire a 1779 painting by Jacques-Louis David, including making a $3-million offer that was far below its estimated value, former chief curator Paul Lang said in an interview.

Mr. Lang said the National Gallery spent 18 months canvassing potential donors for their interest in helping to pay for the French neoclassical painting that is worth approximately US$5-million, called Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment. In Canadian dollars, the piece is worth $6.4-million today.

Mr. Lang said no donors were interested in acquiring the piece, and the parish refused the offer of $3-million that would have fit within the National Gallery’s annual acquisition budget of $8-million.

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The National Gallery went on to obtain the approval of its board of directors last December to sell its 1929 Chagall painting called The Eiffel Tower at a Christie’s auction house on May 15. The National Gallery hopes to raise between US$6-million and US$9-million from the auction.

“We looked [for alternate sources of funding] for 18 months. We knocked on all doors,” said Mr. Lang, who is now director of the Museums of Strasbourg in France.

The David is now at the centre of a squabble between the National Gallery and cultural institutions in Quebec. Quebec Culture Minister Marie Montpetit has filed notice that she will give special heritage protection to the painting, which means the canvas can’t leave the province without the minister’s permission and the government has the right to buy the painting before anyone else.

Mr. Lang, who recently left the National Gallery, defended the federal institution’s handling of the matter, stating the goal was simply to keep the painting in Canada. The painting is owned by the parish of Notre-Dame de Québec, which decided to sell it to raise badly needed funds and was willing to ship it overseas.

Mr. Lang said he is convinced that the David was heading for the British National Gallery in London. Both the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the Musée de la civilisation in Quebec City have acknowledged they had tried and failed to secure funding to acquire the David.

“I can guarantee you that the painting was going to leave Canada for London,” Mr. Lang said.

He acknowledged that selling the Chagall was hotly debated within the National Gallery. According to the National Gallery’s policies, “the permanent alienation of a work of art from the Gallery’s collection [must be undertaken] only under exceptional circumstances.”

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However, he said there is an overall agreement that the Chagall – which was not on permanent display in Ottawa – is better suited for private collections, while the David is at home in a museum setting.

“This decision wasn’t made lightly, but we had to prioritize,” he said.

Mr. Lang said the David is in a fragile state and that under his watch, the painting would not travel between galleries or museums.

The Musée de la civilisation, which is the legal depository of the David painting, is working on a joint bid with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts to raise the funds through public and private sources to buy the painting. Saint Jerome is currently on display at the MMFA.

The Quebec museums suggested earlier this month that the painting could be shared between the institutions, but the National Gallery, which displayed the David in Ottawa from 1995 to 2013, initially shot down that idea. The chair of the gallery’s board of trustees has since indicated they may be open to a sharing arrangement.

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