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Canadian government nearly lost rare art collection

A deal to repatriate a huge collection of rare Canadian art from England nearly fell apart as the selling family grew frustrated with the slow response of officials in Ottawa. The acquisition took so long that taxpayers wound up paying $500,000 more than the original asking price.

A deal to repatriate a huge collection of rare Canadian art from England nearly fell apart as the selling family grew frustrated with the slow response of officials in Ottawa.

In the end, the troubled acquisition of the Peter Winkworth collection by the federal government took so long that taxpayers wound up paying $500,000 more than the original asking price, newly disclosed documents show. 

The 1,200 pieces in the collection, acquired for $4.5 million last year, were meticulously amassed by Winkworth, a former Montrealer who died in London in 2005 at age 76 following a series of strokes.

The material includes watercolours, paintings, prints, maps, powder horns, a sundial and other visual depictions of early Canada, all assembled lovingly over a lifetime.

'[The family's] inclination has been to take it all to auction."—Canada's chief archivist, Ian Wilson

Winkworth's family offered the entire collection to Library and Archives Canada in June 2007 for $4 million, documents obtained by the Canadian Press news agency under the Access to Information Act show.

But federal officials were so slow to respond that eight months later the family was preparing to break up the collection and offer the items up individually for auction to the highest bidder.

Canada's chief archivist and librarian, Ian Wilson, flew to London for an emergency meeting with the family, their agent, and with auctioneer Sotheby's UK on Feb. 24 last year to try to salvage the deal.

"They were reluctant to meet with me," Wilson reported three days later about the taut Saturday night session in the posh Winkworth home in Kensington. "Their inclination has been to take it all to auction."

National Gallery and Archives split costs

Wilson was finally able to cobble together a tentative deal, but not at the original price.

"Their asking price has now moved to $4.5M Cdn," he said in an email report on the talks.

The proposal they discussed would see the National Gallery of Canada pay $1.75 million for some key items.

Cash-strapped Library and Archives Canada would pay the remainder — $1.95 million within weeks and another $800,000 at the start of the new fiscal year, that is, after March 1 when fresh funding was available. 

The family eventually agreed, with one highly unusual condition.

Wanting to avoid more bureaucratic snags, the family insisted that the Canadian government would not have title to any of the items in the vast collection until the last dollar of the $4.5 million had been received by the Winkworth estate.

As it turned out, the National Gallery's cheque was delayed until June 2008 — almost two months after the agreed deadline — which meant Library and Archives had spent $2.75 million on art that it didn't technically own until the late payment cleared.

The government now owns virtually all of the Winkworth collection, believed to have been the largest assembly of early Canadian art held privately.

Government acquired 4,000 Winkworth objects in 2002

In 2002, three years before his death, Winkworth had sold more than 4,000 items to Ottawa for $6 million.

That agreement, six years in the making, included a clause giving the Canadian government right of first refusal if the family wanted to sell the remainder of the rich visual record of early Canada.

A spokesman for Library and Archives Canada said finding money and carefully inspecting the collection after the June 2007 tentative deal took time, as funds were solicited from potential private donors and other departments.

"We do not have a large acquisition budget," Jim Burant, chief of art and photo archives, said in an interview. "We do not normally purchase large collections for $4 million."

All 130 lots of the collection were shipped to Ottawa for inspection in September 2007, where its value was soon confirmed, but no private money could be found to buy it. Negotiations with other departments took longer than expected.

Details of the Winkworth acquisition were made public only in mid-November, though Library and Archives Canada kept the price tag secret at the time.

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