Appeals court rules international art can be of 'national importance'

The Federal Court of Appeal has ruled that a work by an international artist can be deemed to be of 'national importance' to Canadian heritage.

Canadian auction house sought export permit to send artwork to U.K. buyer

David Heffel, president of Heffel Fine Art Auction House, appears in Toronto in 2016. The auction house has expressed disappointment with an appeals court decision that supports an earlier export review board ruling that blocked Heffel from sending a French painting it sold to a buyer in the U.K. (Melissa Renwick/Canadian Press)

The Federal Court of Appeal has ruled that a work by an international artist can be deemed to be of "national importance" to Canadian heritage.

On Tuesday, the appeals court restored a decision by the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board preventing a Canadian auction house from shipping a painting by French artist Gustave Caillebotte to a buyer in London, England.

In a 2017 decision, the review board refused to issue the Heffel Fine Art Auction House a permit to export Caillebotte's 1892 canvas Iris bleus, jardin du Petit Gennevilliers, on the basis that the work was considered of "national importance" under the Cultural Property Export and Import Act.

The auction house had sold Iris bleus, jardin du Petit Gennevilliers, a painting by French artist Gustave Caillebotte, to a buyer in the U.K. (Heffel Fine Art Auction House/Canadian Press)

Heffel challenged the decision in federal court and won in June 2018, but the Attorney General of Canada appealed the ruling.

In its decision, the appeals court ruled the lower-court judge erred by not deferring to the review board's "reasonable" interpretation that an object can be of "national importance" even if it or its creator have no direct connection to Canada.

Several museums, who rely on similar criteria of "outstanding significance" and "national importance" to entice donations of artworks through tax credits, were granted intervenor status in the appeals case.

In the March federal budget, the Liberal government moved to do away with the "national importance" requirement for donors to obtain these tax breaks.

In a statement Tuesday, Heffel expressed disappointment with the appeals court decision, saying the criteria that deems a work to be of "national importance" could be interpreted "very broadly."

Canadian Heritage says in a statement that it welcomes the decision "as it supports the interpretation advocated for by our museums."