Gallery officials knew selling the Chagall would be highly controversial — but did it anyway

Documents obtained by CBC News regarding the controversial decision to auction a Chagall painting show officials were aware the move might create controversy, but decided to proceed anyway.

Internal documents show the painting was displayed for many years — not stuck in a vault as claimed

Internal documents from the National Gallery of Canada, obtained by CBC News, lay out the inside story of the decision to auction off a Chagall painting - a decision later reversed after public outcry. ((Emily Chung/CBC))

The board of the National Gallery of Canada knew that auctioning off the Marc Chagall painting The Eiffel Tower could trigger a public backlash — but decided unanimously to approve the sale anyway.

"Discussions focused on whether The Eiffel Tower meets all the criteria for disposition as set forth in the Gallery's Disposition Policy, and whether the institution is prepared to deal with the potential negative reaction of the public to this disposition," read the minutes of a Dec. 4, 2017 committee meeting where the sale was first discussed.

Members of the acquisition committee unanimously approved the move and the full board of trustees unanimously endorsed it the following day.

Christie’s auction house was compensated after the sale of Marc Chagall’s La Tour Eiffel was cancelled on April 26 by the National Gallery of Canada. A private donor paid the cancellation fee. (National Gallery of Canada/Christie's)

The decision only became public months later, when Christie's auction house issued a March 20 release announcing the auction of the Chagall canvas in New York. Christie's estimated the 1929 oil painting would fetch between $6 million US and $9 million US.

After an outcry in Canada, the National Gallery on April 26 reversed course, cancelled the auction and — with money from an anonymous donor — paid Christie's an undisclosed fee for its trouble.

CBC News has obtained internal documents through the Access to Information Act that chronicle the initial decisions made behind closed doors.

Earlier in 2017, the gallery's board of trustees approved a formal policy for deciding which artworks could be dropped from the collection, and how the process would work.

Art that 'lacks value'

"Attention will be given to transparency throughout," says the policy. One of the criteria listed in the policy for removing an item from the collection is that "the work of art … lacks value for the purpose of study or exhibition."

Gallery director Marc Mayer has suggested the Chagall painting, which he said was purchased for $16,000 in 1956, spent most of its time in storage rather than on display.

"We could have sold a number of works that also have, like the Chagall, spent most of their time in storage," Mayer told Chris Hall, host of CBC Radio's The House, in early April.

But a Nov. 7, 2017 formal proposal to sell the work shows that The Eiffel Tower was on display frequently at the gallery, often for years at a time — from 1960 to 1969, from 1989 to 2005 and, most recently, from 2011 to 2012. The piece was also often requested for loans by international art institutions.

The gallery put The Eiffel Tower on display again last weekend, responding to the interest stirred by the controversy.

The formal sale proposal from Nov. 7 also makes it clear that the planned auction of the Chagall was not a stand-alone decision, but was made for the sole purpose of acquiring a painting by Jacques-Louis David being offered for sale by a Quebec church.

... this was not a rejection of works by Chagall ...- Internal minutes of a National Gallery of Canada meeting that approved the auction of Chagall's

"We propose to de-accession and sell The Eiffel Tower to finance the purchase of Jacques-Louis David's Saint Jerome (1779) … The choice was determined by the need to minimize the impact to the collection, by the near certainty that the de-accessioned work would produce the necessary sum," says an executive summary of the sale proposal.

"Marc Mayer and [chief curator] Paul Lang explained that this was not a rejection of works by Chagall but rather an opportunity to improve the national collection by acquiring Saint Jerome," say the minutes of the Dec. 4 meeting of the acquisitions committee.

On April 23 of this year, the National Gallery issued a news release that appeared to broaden the rationale for selling the Chagall beyond what the board of trustees had approved in December:

"The proceeds from the sale of Marc Chagall's The Eiffel Tower will be used for three important purposes: supporting the possible acquisition of David's St. Jerome, establishing a financial safety net to acquire works at risk of leaving the country, and strengthening the Gallery's ability to acquire major works of art …"

Notice of intent

The outcry from art critics and others over the pending loss of the Chagall was complicated by concerns in Quebec that the David painting might leave the province.

The Quebec government issued a notice of intent to have the David canvas declared a heritage document, thereby keeping it in Canada, and a cultural tug-of-war erupted over where it might end up — at a Quebec institution or at the National Gallery in Ottawa.

In March of last year, the National Gallery's board of trustees also agreed to remove a series of minor works from the collection — including a carpet that had been embroidered between 1941 and 1950 by Queen Mary, grandmother of the current Queen Elizabeth II.

Marc Mayer, director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada, said the Chagall painting spent most of its time in storage, but internal documents show it was displayed for many years. (Idil Mussa/CBC)

Most such works were transferred to other Canadian institutions, although three ancient pieces from Iraq and Egypt were slated for sale; they have not yet been sold.

The gallery has said that with its new disposition policy in place, officials will be removing artworks from the collection more frequently through sales, auctions or transfers.

A National Gallery spokesperson told CBC News that The Eiffel Tower was in storage from July 2012 forward. "Prior to that date, the painting was on display on and off over the years, as it was not an essential element of our display of Modern art, unlike other works in our collection," said Josee-Britanie Mallet.

She also said the gallery was transparent about the sale because it told some 150 other museums in Canada that they could purchase the Chagall (they all declined). Mallet also noted that any works earmarked for disposal are listed in the gallery's annual report, normally made public months after the March 31 year-end.

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