National Gallery of Canada to pull Chagall painting off auction block

The National Gallery of Canada is reversing its controversial decision to sell a Marc Chagall painting.

Board of trustees reverses decision to sell 1929 oil painting La Tour Eiffel

Marc Chagall’s La Tour Eiffel. (National Gallery of Canada/Christie's)

The National Gallery of Canada is reversing its controversial decision to sell a Marc Chagall painting.

 La Tour Eiffel, one of only two Chagall oils owned by the gallery, was set to go up for auction in New York on May 15. The sale was expected to fetch between US$6 million and US$9 million.

The gallery said it was selling the Chagall to raise the funds needed to keep the painting Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment by Jacques-Louis David in Canada.

The painting faced the prospect of being sold to an international collector. But with an an annual acquisition budget of only $8 million, the gallery was not confident it had the resources to make the purchase outright.

The government of Quebec, however, changed the circumstances underlying the purchase by issuing a notice of intent to have the David canvas declared a heritage document, thereby keeping it in Canada.

The Globe and Mail first reported today that the gallery board of trustees made the decision to withdraw the canvas from auction Wednesday. A government source told Radio-Canada, the CBC's French language service, that the board called the auction off and alerted the Department of Canadian Heritage.

The gallery confirmed the decision late Thursday, issuing a statement saying the decision to sell Chagall's work was not taken lightly but "involved careful, scholarly consideration by Gallery curators, the Board and its external advisors."

"With David's Saint Jerome no longer at risk of leaving the country, the National Gallery's Board of Trustees has concluded that it is no longer necessary to proceed with the sale of The Eiffel Tower on May 15, 2018 as originally planned; The Eiffel Tower will remain in the national collection," the letter said. 

The gallery will have to pay a penalty to Christie's auction house for withdrawing the painting.

It's too early to say what that fee will be, but a spokesperson for Christie's said penalties are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, depending on such factors as the reason why the auction was cancelled.

As of Thursday afternoon, the painting was still listed on the auction house's website with an estimated price of between US$6 million and US$9 million.

Gallery's about-face

The about-face comes just three days after the publication of an open letter signed jointly by the chair of the gallery's board of trustees, Françoise Lyon, and gallery director Marc Mayer. It stated the gallery still intended to go ahead with the sale.

In the letter, Lyon and Mayer said the board had "reviewed" the decision to sell the painting but that it would still proceed. Lyon and Mayer insisted that the decision was "very carefully considered."

The gallery's letter said it was pleased the Quebec government had taken the decision to act.

"The work's historic connection to our country and the province of Quebec is undeniable," the letter said. "Keeping the painting in Canada had been the intended result of considerable efforts by the National Gallery of Canada since 2016, when it was first offered for sale. We are pleased that this has been accomplished."

The Chagall canvas is one of eight pieces the gallery's board of trustees approved last June for "de-accessioning," meaning they were earmarked for sale or donation to other facilities.

The decision drew much criticism after CBC News broke the story earlier this month, with the outgoing head of a group representing art critics calling the sale "a monumental stupidity."


  • A sub-headline on this story has been updated from a previous version that stated the board of trustees overrode a decision by the gallery's director. In fact, the gallery says the initial decision to sell the Chagall painting was made by the director, chief curator, other staff and independent advisers.
    Apr 27, 2018 12:34 PM ET


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