National Gallery of Canada puts Chagall masterpiece on the auction block

A sublime oil painting by Marc Chagall, owned by the people of Canada since 1956, is going up for auction in New York next month as the National Gallery of Canada rejigs its art-retention policies. The proceeds - perhaps as much as US$9 million - will go to buy more art. One art critic calls a move a "monumental stupidity."

Auction marks start of new Gallery policy that will see more sales of inventory

This 1929 masterwork by Marc Chagall is being removed from the National Gallery of Canada's collection and is being sold by auction next month in New York. The piece is estimated to be worth between US$6 million and US$9 million. (National Gallery of Canada/Christie's)

The National Gallery of Canada is sending a Marc Chagall masterpiece to New York for auction next month — part of a new policy that will see the gallery put more items from its current collection on the block, or send them elsewhere.

On May 15, Christie's is auctioning The Eiffel Tower, one of only two Chagall oils owned by the gallery. The auction house estimates the painting will fetch between US$6 million and US$9 million.

The proceeds will be used to buy an important work of "national heritage" that the gallery is negotiating to acquire but will not identify, said spokeswoman Christiane Vaillancourt.

The Chagall is among eight pieces the gallery's Board of Trustees approved last June for "de-accessioning," which means they are being sold or donated to other facilities.

The sale of this art is a monumental stupidity. It has to be stopped.- Ninon Gauthier, Canadian art critic

The other pieces for sale are an ancient Egyptian mummy portrait — the subject of negotiations with an unidentified Canadian museum — and two Assyrian alabaster sculptures, dating from 883-859 BCE, which are slated for auction.

The remaining pieces are British and Canadian portraits and articles of embroidery which are being donated to other federal institutions, including Library and Archives Canada and the Library of Parliament.

The eight pieces mark the beginning of a new "disposition policy" that will increase the frequency of National Gallery sales and donations, says a November briefing note prepared for for Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly.

Gallery expected to drop more artworks

"As the Gallery has begun a long-term project to re-assess its collection and its component works, the frequency with which the Gallery will de-accession artworks is expected to increase ..." says the briefing note.

"The sale of certain works may raise significant revenue; however, the Gallery expects that the bulk of material that will be proposed for sale will be of limited interest to the market."

The disposition policy forbids sales of artworks from living artists, and says proceeds must go to buy other pieces and must not be used for operations or capital investment.

The outgoing head of a group representing art critics slammed the auction, saying it must be called off.

"The sale of this art is a monumental stupidity. It has to be stopped," Ninon Gauthier, who learned of the pending sale from CBC News, said from Montreal.

Gauthier, former president of the Canadian branch of the International Association of Art Critics, said the Chagall belongs to all Canadians.

"Future generations will not forgive the gallery for that loss … The National Gallery is not just for Canadian art. It's for international art."

This painting is being offered for sale at an ideal time in the market.- Christie's auction house

Vaillancourt said the four pieces being sold, including the Chagall, were first offered for purchase to 150 other Canadian museums and galleries across the country.

The gallery bought The Eiffel Tower in 1956 from the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York as the facility was building its collections of Contemporary and Modern European art. Vaillancourt said the purchase price remains confidential.

"Since then, the collection has been further enriched and this particular work has become less relevant to our needs," Vaillancourt said.

"The sale of The Eiffel Tower will have no effect on the Gallery's commitment to preserving, studying and displaying Chagall's art."

In addition to another Chagall oil painting from 1924, the gallery also owns many prints and drawings by the artist, who was born in Belarus and worked in France. He died in 1985.

The Assyrian and Egyptian pieces are being sold because they "no longer fall under our collection mandate, and we do not have comparable examples to provide context," Vaillancourt said.

"As a result, they have not been displayed at the Gallery for decades. Canadian museums have important examples of all these objects."

The National Gallery of Canada, founded in 1880, has de-accessioned about 300 works over its history. Usually it donates them to other institutions, returns them to the artist or trades them with other galleries.

Returned Nazi loot

Twice, the gallery has voluntarily returned works to rightful owners. In 2001, a limestone sculpture from the Tang Dynasty, dating from about 700-720 AD, was given back to China. And a Nazi-looted painting, by French artist Edouard Vuillard, was returned to a family in France in 2006.

The briefing note to Joly says the sales and donations may attract criticism, but would be offset by revenues available to buy new art. The gallery receives about $8 million annually from the federal government for acquisitions.

The briefing note, obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act, notes that the gallery is a Crown corporation that makes decisions independent of government.

Cyanne Chutkow of Christie's has called The Eiffel Tower a "luminous canvas."

"This painting is being offered for sale at an ideal time in the market, when singular examples by Chagall are more in demand than ever," Chutkow said in a release.

Vaillancourt said the gallery's trustees have not approved of any further disposals and are not currently considering any.

Follow @DeanBeeby on Twitter


Dean Beeby

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Bureau

Dean Beeby is a CBC journalist, author and specialist in freedom-of-information laws. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanBeeby

With files from Julie Van Dusen, CBC Parliamentary Bureau


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