Canada loses great Canadian, arts benefactor in Thomson

The passing of renowned Canadian art collector Ken Thomson is the loss of "a great Canadian and the greatest benefactor" of the Art Gallery of Ontario, the gallery's director said Monday.

The death of renowned Canadian art collector Ken Thomson is the loss of "a great Canadian and the greatest benefactor" of the Art Gallery of Ontario, the gallery's director said Monday.

Thomson, who was estimated to be the ninth richest person in the world, died Monday morning. He was 82.

The media mogul had been the lead donor to the gallery's current expansion campaign, having helped launch the project in 2002 by donating his much-lauded $300-million private art collection to the AGO as well as $50 million towards the renovation campaign and $20 million towards the gallery's endowment fund.

"For the past number of years the Art Gallery of Ontario was privileged to work with Ken to realize a shared dream, of making our institution one of the great cultural centres in North America," Matthew Teitelbaum, the gallery's director and chief executive officer, said in a statement.

"It saddens us all that Ken will not be with us to realize and celebrate this great vision. It was, for all of us, a dream to share our pleasure with him at our opening."

Canada's best-known art collector

As Canada's richest person, Thomson was able to indulge in his longtime love of art and, over the years, gradually amassed what is considered the finest private art collection in the country.

Formerly displayed at the Hudson's Bay building in Toronto, the Thomson collection includes about1,500 works by Canadian superstars such as Tom Thomson, Cornelius Krieghoff, Emily Carr and David Milne. Another 500pieces are mostly European objets d'art such as sculptures, ivories, carvings and similar items dating from as far back as the Middle Ages.

However, the highlights of the collection, estimated to be worth about $300 million, include a number of pieces he purchased just a few years ago for record-setting prices.

In May 2001, Thomson set a new record for the highest price ever paid for a Canadian painting when he purchased Baffin Island by Lawren Harris for $2.4 million (all prices include buyer's premium).

In February 2002, he broke that same record when he purchased Paul Kane's Scene in the Northwest for nearly $5.1 million.

Just five months later, he paid a stunning $117 million for Massacre of the Innocents by Peter Paul Rubens — the highest price ever paid for an Old Master painting — at a London auction.

Sotheby's Canada president David Silcox said Thomson made an immense contribution to the Canadian art scene.

"He set an example by saying that first of all art was important, and that it mattered, that Canadian art mattered a great deal," Silcox told the Canadian Press in a telephone interview from Turkey.

"I think his enthusiasm is something that rubbed off on other Canadians with means and Canadians in general," he said, adding that Thomson was "a sort of collector's collector, he knew what he wanted, he searched out the best and luckily for him, he had the means to indulge the things he had a passion for collecting."

Unprecedented donation

Thomson announced in November 2002 that he was donating his high-profile new acquisitions and the rest of his more than 2,000-piece collection to the AGO.

The unprecedented donation also helped securethe participation of internationally renowned Canadian architect Frank Gehry, who grew up in the same downtown Toronto neighbourhood where the gallery is located.

Last year, speaking at an event launching the gallery's renovation project, Thomson said he knew he would be "intensely proud" of the revamped venue.

"The Art Gallery of Ontario has always held a special place in my heart, and I am confident that it represents the best opportunity to share my passion for art with the people of this city, Ontario, Canada and the world," Thomson said.